Like all paddling gear, paddles have competing characteristics. What makes it good at one aspect of paddling is exactly what makes it bad at another. So understanding what you want in a paddle is the first step in getting the correct paddle. I'm going to stick with the basics and the more common Euro paddles - I'll leave Greenland sticks and Wing paddles for another time.
[I'm 6' tall with the same arm span. I use a 220cm paddle for touring, anything where I'm going to cover lots of distance and use mostly forward strokes. On the river I use a 197cm paddle. When I play in a sea kayak I use a 205cm paddle - sea kayaks often sit you up higher and don't respond as quickly as a WW boat, so the extra length helps out with leverage. For surfing I have a 193cm paddler, allows for a faster turnover rate and quick acceleration. For polo I use a 200cm paddle - it balances acceleration with the ability to block the goal if necessary.]
[I use a moderately large WW blade - I'm fairly strong and paddle a lot. I use a medium blade for most sea kayaking and a smaller blade for surfing. I don't have a lot of weight to pull through the water (170 lbs.) so I don't need the largest blades out there, even though I have the strength to use them. I can accelerate quicker and feel better using a medium blade for most things. I like a larger blade on the river so I can get max power out of it on those few occasions where it's really necessary. But I don't need it when teaching or running class IV or lower.]
|left: low angle touring|
right: downturned whitewater
[I like downturned blades for whitewater and surf - I have fairly good technique with lots of verticality in my strokes. For long distance paddles I definitely am a low angle paddler so I like a longer, skinnier blade.]
[I use mostly carbon paddles. As I'm getting older (aren't we all) I find myself shifting away from the peak performance to find things that are easier on my body. I now use a wood shaft/carbon blade paddle for ocean play and will probably switch to that on the river soon. I use a light weight carbon paddle for touring and don't expect to change that - those ounces really add up over long distances.]
|Top to bottom:|
partial; full foam, no foam
|top: foam core; bottom: plain carbon|
[I always try to use bent shaft. I paddle a lot and I type even more, so my wrists/forearms get a lot of stress. Bent shafts make a noticeable difference for me. The only straight shaft paddles I use are in polo - just too much moving the hands around and doing other things with the paddle to make a bent shaft work.]
[I mostly use standard size paddle shafts even though my hands are on the small side. My newest paddle has a thicker shaft and I love it. One of my polo paddles has a thinner shaft and it always gave me more grip fatigue issues but I figured it was from the hard use or the straight shaft. I think I'll stick to thicker shafts from now on.]
There is more to talk about with paddles, more material/shape/swing-weight issues. But I've rambled enough. This should get you started. If you have any specific questions on paddle design please leave it in the comments. If you're curious, others out there will be as well.