This article was first published in Paddling Magazine Issue 58.
The first time somebody put a kayak paddle in my hand was almost 30 years ago. The paddle was 230cm long and feathered at 80 degrees for right hand control. My paddling mentor gave me a simple set of instructions: line up your knuckles here, when you want to take a stroke on the left, twist your wrist back and put the paddle in the water.
I got started with a feathered kayak paddle because that’s what everyone around me was using, but it wasn’t long before I realized that there were a whole bunch of people who thought unfeathered paddles were the way to go. I wanted to know who was right.
In search of the answer I dove into the available resources. I read John Dowd’s book, Derek Hutchinson’s, and Nigel Foster’s. I dug into obscure magazine articles. I even carved a Greenland style paddle and used it until I felt I had the hang of traditional sea kayaking.
By the late-nineties I had set aside the Greenland paddle and started whitewater kayaking. I saw whitewater as a way to improve my rough water sea kayak skills, and since whitewater paddles were feathered I figured it was sensible to standardize my equipment. I switched to shorter touring paddles and used an 80 degree feather on everything. I was firmly convinced that feathered paddles were the way to go.
I had to be dragged kicking and screaming away from my 80 degree paddles, but dragged I was. The first challenge came in sea kayak paddles, when my favorite paddle manufacturer switched their standard feather angle to 60 degrees. The lower angle was said to be easier on the wrists and was still effective in a headwind. I didn’t have much choice, so I made the switch.
Whitewater came next. When I broke my favorite 60 degree whitewater paddle, the manufacturer told me that they could replace it with a 45, but not a 60. Forty-five, apparently, was easier on the wrists and most whitewater paddlers had switched over. As the trend went, I went, and shifted down to 45.
At 45 degrees I noticed a strange thing. I no longer had to twist my wrist to change the angle of the blade on the left side. In fact, as soon as I raised my right hand up to my shoulder the left paddle blade automatically squared itself to the boat, ready for a forward stroke. My top hand had a completely straight wrist.
I had quite a bit of wrist pain in my early touring years, and it completely disappeared by the time I had eased my way down to 45 degrees. As far as I could tell it was twisting my wrist over and over that was giving me trouble, and the 45 degree paddle eliminated that motion.
With the pain gone I started to reevaluate what I wanted in feather angle. Instead of performance in a headwind I decided wanted something that would keep me paddling without pain. I knew that 45 was better than 60, so, less was better. But how much less? I tried some whitewater paddles down to 30 degrees. They were just as neutral on my wrists as the 45 degree feather. Twenty years into my quest to understand feather angle I started to wonder if maybe unfeathered paddles really were the answer.
The answer, it turns out, is no.
Why not? Well, with a short paddle, once you drop below about 30 degrees of feather, you need to start tweaking your wrist again. Not back like in the old days, but sideways, in an awkward cocked position that invites a repetitive use injury. If a neutral wrist is the best way to avoid tweaking yourself over time, then feather angles below 30 degrees simply don’t work.
Don’t work, that is, with a short paddle. I’d been using short, feathered touring paddles for years because they were similar to my whitewater paddles, but the Greenland paddles that I used in back in the 90s were long, unfeathered and seemed to work fine. What was the difference?
There’s a meme in the sea kayak world that’s used to describe different forward stroke styles. Paddlers using short paddles are said to use a high angle forward stroke. This stroke has the top hand at shoulder level and is very powerful. It’s the stroke that I use for whitewater and touring and there is no question that it is an effective technique.
That being said, if you’re holding your top hand at shoulder level you engage your shoulder muscles more. This is fatiguing over time, and while you can always buy a lighter paddle, many people prefer to use a lower top hand position that is less powerful, but also less fatiguing. This technique is frequently referred to as a low angle paddling style.
The traditional Greenland style paddling that I experimented with in my 20’s is the ultimate in low angle paddling. The hands are held very low, just above the sprayskirt, and the paddle is long and unfeathered. What you’ll discover about the Greenland forward stroke, should you try it, is that your wrists stay completely straight throughout the stroke. The shoulder, elbow and wrist are aligned differently when the hands are held low. I discovered a similar effect when I experimented with longer modern sea kayak paddles: long unfeathered paddles keep your wrists straight.
What about long feathered paddles? As it turn out, if you use a long paddle and hold your hands low you need to twist your wrist back with even the slightest feather angles. Long paddles, straight wrists and feather angles, it appears, are completely incompatible. If you go with a long paddle and a low hand position, you’re better off unfeathered.
So there you have it. As it turns out, there isn’t one answer to the feathered vs unfeathered argument, there are two. If you want to avoid repetitive use injury you should try to keep your wrists straight during your forward stroke, and there are a couple ways to do it.
Which feather angle is best? Both. If you prefer a short paddle for maximum power you should use a feather angle between 30 and 45 degrees. If you would rather use a long paddle that allows your hands to be held low, an unfeathered paddle will keep your wrists straight. That’s the answer. Keep your wrists straight and keep on paddling. Choose the feather angle that will keep you injury free and kayaking for the long haul.
Here’s a short video walking you through the mechanics of different feather angles:
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