For most people, their first experience with standup paddling inevitably involves an issue with the paddle. Too heavy, too long, too short, too stiff, backwards––you name it, it happens.
Unfortunately, the wrong paddle inevitably leads to the wrong experience––one that can be filled with frustration and disappointment. On the flip side, finding the right paddle will unlock your potential for maximum enjoyment and on-water performance.
This five-step guide makes it easy for beginners to find a paddle that suits their style, no matter if you prefer cruising, racing, surfing––or all three.
Photo credit: Fish Bowl Diaries / Black Project
Type of Paddle
When it comes to picking a paddle, first you need to decide what type of paddling you’re going to be doing. Just like specific shoes are designed for specific sports––the same concept applies to choosing your paddle. It doesn’t matter what the pros are using, what matters is choosing the right paddle for your own unique set of variables.
An all-around paddle is a great place to start. However, if you plan on spending the majority of your time in a single SUP discipline such as surfing or racing, you’ll want to choose a discipline-specific paddle to match.
It’s also important to remember that while you don’t need to buy the most expensive paddle on the market, stay away from the bargain bin. Low-quality paddles can ruin the paddling experience and drive people away from the sport. To truly appreciate the magic of paddling, you need a well-designed, high-quality paddle in your hands.
While proper paddle length is critical to optimizing your performance, there is no universal answer to a question regarding SUP paddle length. Finding your optimal length involves a combination of variables from your height to your board-type to your paddling style.
If your main goal is simply fun and comfort, then a slightly longer paddle is the way to go. A longer shaft enables you to stand more upright in a relaxed stance and lower the cadence of your stroke. Additionally, longer paddles can really help with the increased volume typically found in recreational boards. For example, the optimal recreational paddle length for a six-foot paddler would be 80 inches.
For those focused on SUP surfing or racing, they’ll want to opt for a slightly shorter paddle that will allow for a more aggressive stroke. For example, that same six-foot paddler would want to use a 78-inch paddle for racing, a 76-inch paddle for SUP longboard surfing and a 73-inch paddle for SUP shortboard surfing.
Finding the right blade size can be tricky. Go too small and you will lack the speed and power you need; go too big and you risk injuring your shoulders. Find the right balance and you will be able to enjoy long paddle sessions with no issues and peak performance.
As a rule of thumb, heavier and taller paddlers are typically able to better cope with bigger blades, while smaller paddlers will conversely benefit from smaller blades. Same goes for board size, as a bigger and heavier board requires a larger blade to power it through the water.
You must also consider what discipline you will be doing. When it comes to SUP surfing or long-distance paddling, a smaller blade enables you to track better and paddle more efficiently. For shorter distances and sprint racing, athletes tend to use a bigger blade because fatigue is less of an issue and maximum power is the goal.
Having the proper amount of flex in your paddle shaft makes a big difference. Not only will this improve your overall performance, but it will also prevent fatigue and injury.
Those paddling medium-to-long distances will prefer the comfort of increased flex. In addition to protecting your body, a softer shaft will actually help you paddle faster for extended periods of time. This type of shaft also works well for surfing, as the added flex enhances a surfer’s feel of the wave and encourages more aggressive maneuvers.
For shorter distances and sprinting, a stiffer shaft with less flex will provide paddlers with some extra torque and power. It’s also important to note that as paddles get shorter, the relative stiffness of the shaft increases.
The other shaft decision revolves around whether to get a fixed or adjustable paddle. While a fixed paddle is undoubtedly the lightest and highest performance option, many beginner paddlers will want to opt for an adjustable paddle so they can experiment with different paddle lengths and share the paddle with others.
Finding a handle that’s right for your paddle depends on both the discipline and your preferred grip style. There are two main handle options—the Palm handle (often referred to as the Ergo) and the T handle (similar to traditional Tahitian OC paddle handles).
The Palm handle is ergonomically designed for comfort, particularly during longer sessions. It rests to the form of your palm with increased area and rounded edges––making it the easiest handle to pick up and go paddle with. This is the preferred choice for recreational flatwater and all racing disciplines.
The T handle is designed specifically for surfing and is meant to be held with your thumb and forefinger looped around one end, and your other fingers on the opposing side of the handle. The smaller surface area allows you to get a better grip on the paddle. This is especially helpful during those critical moments––whether that’s trying to hold onto the paddle during a wipeout or scratching into a big set wave. While this handle is comfortable for long surf sessions, it’s not as ideal for long-distance flatwater paddling.
The APP went behind the scenes to Black Project SUP's workshop in Maui to hear about the history of the business and to see where all the magic happens- check out where your paddles are made here:
Follow Black Project SUP on Instagram @blackprojectsup for more tips on choosing paddles and fins.