Feather angle 101
The feather angle is the angle between the two blades of a paddle. It is also the source of a never-ending debate about ‘the perfect angle’. The main reason that this debate is still ongoing is that paddlers get attached to the feather angle that they are used to and they will defend the merits of their chosen/taught angle without ever considering alternatives or understanding the mechanics behind it. Allow me to shed some light on this issue.
There are two ways to control your paddle, and the method you use determines the correct feather angle.
1) You use one hand exclusively as the controlling hand, which grips the shaft tightly, while the other hand allows the shaft to rotate in it. When you use this method, the correct feather angle is determined by the angle of your paddle stroke. It is that simple. It is a matter of physics.
2) You use both hands to control the blade, alternating between the hands with every stroke. When you use this method, the best feather angle is zero degrees, although a different angle can work if you understand the technique well enough.
Using one controlling hand
The most common way of controlling a paddle, which started way back when most paddles had a 90-degree feather angle, is to use one controlling hand. The original reason for setting the blades at 90° was to reduce wind resistance on the upper blade. Nowadays, very few paddles have a 90° feather angle as it turned out to have detrimental effects on paddling style and efficiency.
Most paddlers use right-hand control. Whether you are left- or right-handed is irrelevant as you quickly adapt to whichever control you start with. For this reason, I always advise new paddlers to go with right-hand control, as this makes it so much easier to buy a new or second-hand paddle, and even more so if you suddenly need to use someone else’s paddle in an emergency.
The blade on your control hand’s side should line up perfectly with your hand. In other words, when you take a stroke on your control hand’s side, your wrist should not cock forward or back to make the blade go smoothly into the water.
On the opposite side, the shaft should be free to turn inside your hand to allow the blade to enter the water correctly. In other words, you only grip the shaft with this hand when the blade enters the water, after aligning it correctly. If you need to cock your controlling wrist to align the opposite blade correctly, it means that the feather angle is incorrect for your paddle stroke. And this is the crux: the more vertical your paddle stroke is, the bigger the feather angle needs to be to align the opposite blade correctly.
To give a specific example: if the majority of your paddle strokes are at 45°, the feather angle of your paddle should be around 45°. There will be times when you need to do more vertical or more horizontal strokes for whatever reason. You would then compensate by cocking your wrist forward or back. But, if you have to cock your controlling wrist with every stroke taken on the opposite side, it means that you need to adjust your feather angle.
It is, of course, entirely possible to use a paddle with a feather angle that differs from the angle of your paddling strokes. But, it just means that your controlling wrist always have to compensate for the difference. This increases fatigue, and can even cause wrist problems.
The angle at which you paddle depends on a number of factors. With a wing paddle, for instance, you only get the benefit of the wing shape when the blade is fairly vertical in the water – at least 60°. Long distance paddling with a touring paddle is often done at about 30° to 45°. In whitewater, a flatter stroke is often used for the sake of stability, with angles ranging from 15° to 45°. Angles of 80° to 90° are useful for canoe polo (goal keeping) and slalom (dodging poles).
When you paddle against a strong headwind, a high feather angle creates the least drag. When you paddle with a strong side wind, a zero feather angle will give you the least hassles.
It is surprisingly easy to adjust to different feather angles, because it is so directly connected to stroke angles. Using the exact same technique, a 60° feather angle will feel the same when you do high angle strokes as a 45° feather angle when you do less vertical strokes.
Using two controlling hands
This technique is favoured by a growing number of paddlers due to the simplicity and symmetry of the load. It forces you to relax each hand during each stroke, reducing strain on joints.
In essence, when you use this technique, you swop controlling hands every time you complete a stroke. With a zero-degree feather angle, you will swop controlling hands the moment the paddle shaft is horizontal – right after you pull the blade out of the water.
Let’s say you do a stroke with the right blade. Your right hand holds the paddle tight during the pull, while the left upper hand is somewhat loose while pushing. The shaft will rotate in your left hand during the stroke. By the time the stroke is completed and the blade comes out of the water, the left hand and wrist will be lined up correctly with the left blade. At this moment, you grip the shaft with the left hand, and relax your right hand to allow the shaft to rotate while you set up and complete the stroke on the left hand.
This technique with zero-degree feather angle works with any type of paddle, including wing paddles, touring paddles and whitewater paddles. If you’re into Greenland paddles, there is no other choice. Many freestyle kayakers use zero feather because it means that both blades are active or inactive at the same time whilst manoeuvring the paddle underwater, and it also helps for balance in a bow stall.
You may want to use a feather angle for a different reason, such as reduced wind resistance or for safety in heavy whitewater. In this case, you can still use the technique of two controlling hands, but your timing should be different to switch control between the two hands.
How do I know if I should change my feather angle?
Knowing if you should change your feather angle is as important as knowing how much to change it. If you suffer from chronic wrist fatigue, it is a sure sign that you need to make some changes.
Otherwise, you could get a friend to take some video footage of you paddling. Focus on two specific shots: 1) Get a close-up of your controlling hand and wrist (if you use one controlling hand), to see if you are doing any unnecessary wrist cocking. 2) Get footage from straight ahead or straight behind to see at what angle your paddle is most of the time.
You may be surprised to learn that the feather angle you are using is not as suited to your style as you thought. Try a variety of feather angles in different conditions, focus on stroke, blade placement and how your hands and wrists are positioned. As an added benefit, you may also pick up some other flaws in your paddling style; it is always a good idea to evaluate your own style from time to time.