Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Seems like I've been getting asked a lot about paddle feathering lately.  People want to know what feather they should get on their paddle.  The questions indicate that most people aren't really sure what it's all about - why are paddles feathered?  I realize that as an instructor I'm guilty of glossing over the issue to beginners (and I don't think I'm alone there) because the answer is a little more complicated and a little more vague than you really want to get into the first time someone picks up a paddle.  So here's a little primer on feather angle that may be a little different from what you've been told before (or maybe it's just old news to you...).

Feathering refers to the offset of the blades on a paddle - holding the paddle horizontally one blade will be vertical while the other will be tilted at an angle.  On an right hand control paddle (more explanation shortly) when the right blade is vertical the left blade will be tilted forward and the degree of tilting (the amount of offset) is referred to as the feather angle.  For a left hand control paddle it's the opposite.  For an unfeathered paddle there is no offset - both blades will be vertical at the same time and their is no control hand.   Right hand control means that for proper technique the right hand grip stays constant on the paddle shaft while the left hand needs to allow the paddle to rotate within your hand (left control is the opposite).  It doesn't really matter if you're right or left handed but it's often more natural to let your dominant hand be the control hand.  Though left hand control paddles are much harder to find so you lefties might just want to go with the right hand control to make your life easier in the long run.

So that's the standard info on what feathering is but the real question is WHY are paddles feathered.  The old answer is that when one blade is in the water the other can slice through the air more efficiently.  That's basically bunk - only true if the paddle is feathered at 90 deg and if the wind is at just the right direction.  The real reason is that using proper modern paddling technique there is a natural angle difference between your two wrists and if the feather angle matches that angle it will allow your wrists to stay in a neutral position which is better for your joints.  Try a little 'paddling' on land and take the time to watch your wrists and note the amount the paddle shaft rotates.  This rotation depends upon your technique - if you are paddling with a low angle stroke (or just using your arms instead of torso rotation) then the angle is generally small (or non existent).  And using a higher angle stroke generally requires a higher feather angle. 

In whitewater kayaking there has been a trend to smaller feather angles - or even completely unfeathered paddles.  A lot of this has to do with playboating where unfeathered blades work well in certain tricks.  This type of paddling is very different from your basic forward stroke so it has different requirements.  But the low angles have spread to the rest of the whitewater community, often for no good reason.  Though it is also true that lower angles will work for folks with poor technique, an unfortunately large segment of the population.  Higher angles work best for forward paddling but can make some other techniques a little trickier so most folks cap out around the 45 deg. mark.

Low Angle Sea Kayaking

High Angle Sea Kayaking
In sea kayaking there are actually two opposing trends:  more high angle technique using Euro blades  (which is often best served with an angle around 60 deg); but also more folks are switching to Greenland paddles which are unfeathered and use a different paddling technique all together.  Many people believe that unfeathered paddles are best for those who are experiencing pain in their wrists or hands but that is not NECESSARILY true - again it comes down to different things work for different people.

The key take away is to think about what type of paddling you do, what type of technique do you use (or aspire to use) and make sure your feathering matches up with that.  Don't just go with whatever paddle you happened to buy before you knew any better.  Don't just copy the fastest guy in your paddling club.  Don't just listen to some random guy spouting off on his blog.  Actually analyze your stroke and wrist position and maybe try some different feather angles and see what works for you - which means is easiest on your joints.  That's the ultimate purpose of a feathered paddle:  to allow you to paddle without pain.  As long as you can do that you are good to go.


  1. Bryant: Nice post, and particularly timely for me as I recently suffered some really painful tendonitis in my right elbow after a routine paddle. I've also suffered some wrist problems in the past, so I'm rethinking my technique, including the blade angle. I'm wearing a strap/brace on the elbow right now, but it's too painful for paddling. Other than ice, any suggestions? Would a careful but specific strengthening exercise help? Best, Glenn

  2. try a little bit of a warm up before paddling on the wrists works for climbing on climbing walls. tens machien may also help once pain has setin as does ultra sound

  3. Glenn - are you using a bent shaft? It's not a cure all but helps out lots of folks with wrist/forearm pain. If it's full tendinitis the only cure is rest. But you might start with a course of Ibuprofen - not just for the pain but it is an anti-inflammatory that can reduce the swelling and help healing.

  4. Nice description for the why of feathering, I'm not visualizing how the natural angle of wrists would be different. I'm thinking that, optimally, the pull-hand-arm and the push-hand-arm would always be aligned. I paddle a straight shaft and always try to use the "okay" sign grip. Is there a video that demonstrates your point?

  5. Mike - your wrists are aligned when they are at the same height, but when one hand is higher than the other the angles change. Hold a broomstick in front of you at waist height and try lifting one hand and see what happens. There shouldn't be a 'pull' or a 'push' hand - it's about rotation. Here's a general clip on the forward stroke:

  6. After a long delay, I was finally out on the water. I pulled my Werner apart enough to free the ferrule and paddled slowly. I kept my hands as natural as I could and observed the range of motion of angle. Then it made sense!

  7. Do you have any ideas as to why I would need different feather on a bent-shaft Werner Ikelos and a straight-shaft wing paddle? I found that 60 on Ikelos translates to about 30 degrees on the wing paddle. Since I've discovered that I can't paddle the wing with 60 degrees, I have reduced my Euroblade angle to about 45 but there remains a bit of a difference in what feels right. Ideas?

  8. Harris - As Kenny pointed out (, there's really no reason why using a wing paddle (or bent shaft) would require a lower feather angle than a standard paddle. Normally the awkward splash on entry is caused by a lower than ideal catch, often paired with not quite enough torso rotation. the extra length on the wing might also be an issue - I wouldn't think you need different lengths between those two paddles. hard to diagnose over email but I would play a little with the wing at different angles and just focus on the catch position while sitting still.