Deciding upon a paddle length from tip to grip is critical in terms of your ability to manage the paddle, apply power to the blade and to avoid shoulder injury in particular. Unfortunately, it is not a perfect science and while there are offerings for a start point for selecting a paddle length they are far from definitive or accurate on a case by case basis. One thing is certain – the length of paddle from tip to grip has shortened significantly over the course of a 10 year period – the shorter the better is now the maxim! This wide range of variance is significant enough to be wary and make you realise there seems to be some degree of rule of thumb for all people. One urban myth suggested a ‘Shaka’ height above head height around 6 inches which has no rationale explanation, but might be a good start point.
When Cruising you will tend to adopt a more upright relaxed stance which lends itself to a longer paddle length. When racing you will tend to want to ‘get over the stroke’ which tends to suggest a shorter length paddle, though race boards are generally thicker so this means, shorter relative to the board thickness. When surfing, a lowered centre of gravity stance and thinner board thickness lends itself to the shortest paddle possible. When down winding, high stroke rates, lowered centre of gravity, will warrant the shorter paddle. The rougher it gets, the truer this becomes.
The primary problem with vague measurements is that they fail to account for the length of the paddler’s arms. Two paddlers of equal height can and will for the most part have differing arm lengths. Does that mean they have the same paddle lengths regardless? Additionally board thickness varies, especially between boards for surf and those for racing, varying by up to and over 4” in thickness which puts you higher or lower relative to the water at blade entry.
The most plausible selection of an appropriate paddle length is as follows:
Begin with the grip 6” above head height when the blade tip is placed on the ground. When paddling on flat water and exercising good technique and form at about 60 – 70% effort, when the blade is fully immersed (water level just below the level of the neck) and at the mid point of the power phase, when shaft is vertical and hands are hand over hand (stacked) your top hand should be near level with forehead or eyes, so as your top arm is not working above your head. Your top arm elbow needs to be at shoulder height or less – and remember, varying board thicknesses, count for a lot when moving between boards.
If you have an adjustable paddle this is easy to correct – but don’t be tempted to go too long – this will only encourage injury. If you have a one piece paddle, think hard before cutting – measure twice – cut once. Before glueing – test by securing with duct tape the handle. If you do epoxy on – often a hair dryer will soften the glue for removal if it needs to be re-cut at some point.