Choosing the right Paddle
Carbon Vs Wood

Jude Turczynski

Some people say, "Wood paddles flex more, so there is less stress on your joints." Some say, "All Hawaiian paddlers choose wood over carbon." Others say, "Carbon paddles are too delicate." Still others say, "Light paddles are more difficult to control in a strong wind." Maybe you're beginning to see where this is going.

I've built "dozens" of wooden paddles myself, the lightest of which was a 14 oz wood paddle with a fiberglass skin that lasted through three years of nearly daily use. I've experimented with differently shaped blades, shafts, grips, various woods and composites. I've purchased and paddled with nearly every commercial outrigger paddle made in the world, both carbon and wood.

Firstly, weight is an extremely important factor in paddling a fast stroke rate and maintaining that stroke rate over a period of time, sometimes hours. It's obvious, a heavy paddle will slow you down and wear you out. Each time you lift your 22 ounce ultra light wood paddle up out of the water and throw it forward four and a half feet to make the catch, you are expending a huge amount of energy to do it...Let's guess that you're expending about 8 ft/lbs of energy just in this single portion of movement (I believe the actual amount to be closer to 20 ft/lbs). If you take 70 strokes per minute and paddle a two hour race, you've expended 8400 ft/lbs of torque for just the purpose of exit and return to catch. If your paddle weighed half as much at 11 oz, you will expend approximately half as much energy. That's a ton of savings....actually, two tons! You can "feel" the difference if you switch back and forth between paddles over a two hour workout. Anyone can notice that they're able to rev their stroke rate much higher when using a carbon paddle. This can come in handy in a sprint for the finish.

Let's discuss the advantages of "flex" in a paddle. There are basically two places where flex occurs on a paddle, in the blade and in the shaft. If you cause the blade & shaft to flex as you apply pressure in your "pull," it's like compressing a spring. A spring is an "energy storage device." You take energy from your body and transmit it to the paddle where it is stored until you allow the spring to decompress, at which point the energy is released. So, you've rerouted and reduced the torque in your most powerful and efficient phase of your stroke, only to release that torque in the exit phase where it's all wasted energy. Some people can notice a snappier movement of their OC-1 when using a carbon paddle instead of wood.

Also, this flexing blade movement causes an inefficient shape to develop on the pressure side allowing water to slip away and fluctuate the pressure/vacuum ratio between surfaces. This causes the blade to flutter.

When it comes to joint injuries, I've been injured more than twice when switching FROM my carbon paddle TO a borrowed wooden paddle, and never when returning to the carbon paddle. I attribute this to a body that was developed under stress of a 9 or 10 oz paddle, and being shocked by a 24 oz paddle. Flex means that you must apply more pressure and have a longer power phase to get an equal amount of energy into the movement of the canoe, as when you have no flex. Am I saying, "You don't have to pull as hard with a carbon paddle."...? No, I'm saying, "Your pull phase doesn't have to be as long to be more powerful."

Many racing associations around the Outrigger world require paddles to be all wood, or mostly wood and this explains preferential use of wood in these locations. In some racing associations, canoe paddles of any material are permitted, and you will find the common preference to be carbon.

Most carbon paddles will last four to ten seasons, depending on use and abuse, where the best I could expect from wood was three to five years. A sharp slap of a wooden paddle shaft against a hard object will usually only dent the shaft, but such a sharp strike against a carbon shaft can crack it and render it useless.

Lastly, a heavy paddle will have so much inertia that wind will have little effect on it's movement in the return to the catch, where a very light paddle responds to every vortex of air. You simply learn to handle either paddle and after several sessions, you've forgotten all about it no matter which paddle you're using. If you have a choice between wood and carbon, it's got to be a fine carbon paddle in the end. A super fine wood/carbon hybrid at the least.