Get Bent: Using a Bent Shaft Canoe Paddle

A couple of years ago, I paddled down the Turkey River in Iowa with two friends for two days. They were in a tandem canoe, and I paddled my solo. The first day of the trip, we enjoyed small riffles, quick turns, and swift water, but they out paced me, so, while they took numerous breaks from paddling, I worked hard to make gains on them. Without these small gains, I would have been left far behind. We paddled all day, and well into the night, finally pulling out around midnight when we noticed lightening and heard thunder. During the night, a strong storm blew in. My friends battened down the hatches on their tent and I slept comfortably under the canopy of a wooden park shelter, my paddles securely stashed under my Duluth Pack. In the morning when we walked back to the canoes, we found that one of their bent shaft paddles had disappeared during the night. After searching for an hour, we concluded that it had been blown away in the storm.

“I guess you should have turned the canoe over,”” I said.

And so each of them would have a paddle, I lent the bow paddler my spare straight shaft. The second day, using my bent shaft paddle, I had no problems keeping up with them. To me, this really illustrated that bent shaft paddles make a significant difference in the efficiency between a bent and straight shaft paddle, and this experience validated what I had known and had espoused to people for the last several years, that bent shaft are not just for racers anymore.

What’s a Bent Shaft Paddle?

A bent shaft paddle is exactly what it sounds to be. The paddle bends anywhere from 5 to 20 degrees at the throat of the paddle, which is the point of the paddle at which the shaft turns into the blade. The original theory was that the bend in the paddle would allow a racer to extend a stroke past the hip with additional efficiency. The first significant use of bent shaft paddles were during races with those who used them gaining advantage over those who didn’t.

Currently, almost all bent shaft paddles have a 12 or 14 degree bend, and according to ZRE paddles, one of the most respected racing brands out there, the 12-degree bend equally distributes the forces from paddling over both arms.

What’s a Double Bent Shaft Paddle?

In recent years, there has been a trend to produce paddles with a double bend in them. They not only have the typical bend that happens at the throat of the paddle, but also have a bend somewhere in the middle of the shaft. The theory is that this extra bend makes the paddle more ergonomic and thus better on your wrists and arms. My favorite double bend paddle is produced by Camp Paddles, but Bending Branches’ Viper is a close second.

I Don’t Race, so Why Should I Care?

Even if you don’t race, I highly recommend bent shaft paddles both for solo paddling and tandem paddling and the main reason that I do so, is that the blade of the paddle stays more perpendicular to the water than a straight shaft does through the entire paddle stroke. When a blade is at an angle less than perpendicular to the surface of the water, that blade actually slips in the water, which in turns sucks the power out of a stroke. A well-trained paddler can achieve a perpendicular stroke with a straight shaft paddle, but most paddlers have a sloppy forward stroke and will benefit from the paddle doing some of the work. So, if you take this little bit of information and do a quick stroke with a straight shaft you will find that the blade is only perpendicular to the water in about 25% of the stroke, but the bent is perpendicular for the whole stroke. Go ahead and try this while sitting on your coffee table. This yields an increase in efficiency of somewhere around 40-50%, which means that you go further for less work.

What You Talk’n About Willis?

If you are having trouble picturing this, imagine a fence post in the ground. Your job is to pull it out of the ground. If the fence post is perpendicular to the ground and you pull back on it, it is harder to pull out then if the post is less than perpendicular to the ground. Pulling on the later example will allow the post to slip out of its hole easier than the former example.

Is There an Adjustment Period?

For turning, some people have trouble adjusting to a bent shaft if they’ve paddled with a straight shaft all their life, but when I switched, I didn’t have any problems, and find that I have to work less on pries and j-strokes than with a straight. Your mileage may differ. My significant other can’t stand using a bent shaft, and I have to con her into using it all the time, but she does use the paddle when we are trying to make up time, because of the added ease of moving the canoe through the water. After a couple of days, most people adjust to the differences between bent and straight shaft paddles, and they like the added speed or extra rest they gain from the bent.

I’m Just Starting, Do I Need One?

Beginner paddlers often gain more from a bent shaft paddle than experienced paddlers do, because a beginner often has a sloppy forward stroke, which will seldom keep the paddle blade perpendicular to the surface of the water. For the beginner, a bent shaft makes up for the lack of experience by doing some of the work for you; it keeps the blade perpendicular so you can concentrate on learning other aspects of the stroke.

That’s All Folks

So, next time you pass the rack of paddles at the local outfitter, make sure you pick up a bent shaft and study it. Take a straight shaft and do a stroke with it, then try a stroke with a bent shaft. Once you see the difference in how each blade is positioned my bet is that you’ll walk out of the store with a bent to take on your next trip. Before you go, though, make sure that you pack a spare bent shaft, so you won’t have to resort back to a straight if you lose your bent, and make sure you turn your canoe upside down and secure your paddles for the night when that summer thunderstorm comes rolling in, or you’ll have a hard time keeping up with the Joneses who are using bent shafts in the canoe next to yours.

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