Sea Kayak Paddles 

(Note: We no longer sell paddles but continue to publish this information to help you choose a paddle you will love)

We are serious about the paddles we use. You will use your paddle to make upwards of 10,000 strokes a day. Your paddle is the last place you should try to save money by buying lower quality. We’ve performed many experiments to discover what paddle attributes are the most important to us. Our goal was to use the best ourselves and sell both the best and the best values. Perhaps you have read Matt's article detailing paddle experiments in the Spring 1992 issue of Sea Kayaker. (p.39). We hope you can also benefit from our research (and obsession) to find the best. Every quality paddle that came in our door is weighed (and the weight is listed on the price tag). 

In short, we like paddles that:

  1. Are light, especially in the blades for a low swing weight. (This means they are easier to hold and require less effort lifting the blade each stroke. They are quicker bracing and shorten the interval between strokes -- less time for the kayak to decelerate.)
  2. Are strong and durable
  3. Are well balanced (some equate this with low swing weight, but we mean it doesn't spin in your hands -- until the heavy side is down -- if loosely held)
  4. Are solid and predictable with either face when stroking or bracing
  5. Don't flutter, zigzag or circle around its "spoon" during a stroke
  6. Don't leak
  7. Don't readily transfer heat (don’t cool hands)
  8. Require little or no maintenance
  9. Have plenty of oval over a long area of the shaft (providing better control with a looser more relaxed grip)
  10. Don't pick up and throw a lot of water into the air, and on us as we paddle
  11. Have a blade size (or shape) that clears the deck at the start of a stroke without the paddle being too long
  12. Does not ventilate (get a lot of air behind the blade on a hard stroke)

As you can see we are particular about the paddle we must lift and use thousands of times a day. We feel the paddle is as important as the kayak to how much fun we have while paddling (and as kayak designer's ourselves we certainly don't want to minimize the difference a superior kayak can make).

Length is the major determiner of a paddle's "gear ratio." We prefer shorter blades so we can paddle in a lower gear (shorter paddle) and still have enough shaft length between the blades to clear the kayak's deck and completely bury the blade during the stroke. The longer shaft between the blades that results from shorter blades allows more room to move our hands around to widen the grip (this lowers your "gear" to accelerate or for stiff head winds). More shaft also allows extending the paddle to one side for greater turning leverage. This is especially nice in strong winds. A shorter length lowers the swing weight and shortens the lever arm a strong wind can act upon. Having your hand closer to the blade also gives you better control of the blade in the water.

There are some areas such as blade feather where knowledgeable paddlers disagree so we stock most of the rational choices--including left feather paddles. Warning: avoid feather angles around 45 degrees, while seductively nice to paddle with they become unmanageable tyrants when paddling into a strong wind. One blade dives down and the other lifts up as you swing it forward. This problem disappears by around 70  degrees of feather angle. Also paddlers using unfeathered paddles might want to consider smaller blade sizes for less resistance in head winds.

We once stocked the paddles that had the best feel, lightest weight, and top quality construction in each price range. We stocked paddles from Lightning, Epic, Grey Owl, and Aquabound. Each of these companies have models or features that made them the paddle of choice for certain styles, purposes, or price range. The models we stocked were the ones that best fit our above criteria. We felt confident offering our money back guarantee of satisfaction on any of them.

Standard fiberglass Lightning paddles feature a heat and pressure cured epoxy/fiberglass shaft made especially for paddles by a firm that produces pole vaulting poles This blue shaft is not cheap (except when compared to ultralight graphite shafts) but its reputation for liveliness and durability is unsurpassed.

Hank Hays, owner of Lightning Paddles heat forms the ends of the shaft and adds a urethane foam plug that fits perfectly into a two sided blade mold. The epoxy/glass blades are then formed over the shaft under heat and pressure (rather than glued on the shaft later as is most commonly done in paddle manufacture. The blades fit so evenly over the pre-shaped shaft and core that almost no filler material (extra weight) is needed, and leaks in the blade or joint are nearly impossible.

The smooth thin blades are laminated with S-glass or graphite cloth using epoxy resin (the toughest available). The swing weight of the standard fiberglass model is less than graphite paddles from most companies, yet they are stronger than most river paddles. The thin blades pick up very little water so you stay drier. The thin smooth blades allow effortless and neutral side to side motion underwater, making Lightning’s an absolute delight for virtuoso paddlers. We've used the thin strong blade to hack our way out of kelp that steep waves deposited over our decks.

In the past cosmetics took second place to function in the Lightning paddle line. Considerable weight would have to be added to the blades in the form of gelcoat to give them a more cosmetically perfect "shelf appeal. As of 2000 with the change to epoxy resin in the blades they are now shiny and  more visually appealing (although the fabric weave is still visible).

The Lightning is the paddle design both Cam and I have continued to use for many years. They just feel right. Low braces and back strokes are solid and consistent--not mushy like some paddles with too much spoon or curve at the ends. The blade is in line with the shaft so the weight is centered with the shaft ands as a result the paddle stays where you left it no matter how light your grip (we call this "great balance"). It flutters more than Aquabound’s dihedral blades if you accelerate hard with a loose hand grip, but the flutter is easy to control and disappears at cruising speed. [Note: we've found the best way to control flutter on most paddles is to use a wing paddle type stroke where the blade slides out to the side as you pull back during the times (like accelerating) when a paddle is most likely to exhibit some of the falling leaf effect referred to as "flutter".]  With Lightning's forgiving blade shape the blade angle changes needed for sculling high braces or draw strokes seem to happen automatically.

The Standard Lightning blade is so forgiving I’ve become lax about technique. All I need to do is throw the blade into the water in front of me (at almost any angle) and pull back. The blade straightens itself out and turns my sloppiness into a reasonable stroke. The blades are curved lengthwise rather than in a true spoon shape. True spoon blade paddles usually require perfect placement and a firm grip or they slide off to one side or the other as you pull back, bumping the hull or even slipping from ones grip to spin a full circle around the arc of the spoon. The Lightning's forgiving nature, balance and very oval grips allow me to paddle with only my pulling fingers hooked around the shaft and my pushing hand open and not gripping at all. A light grip that puts less strain on my hands, wrists, and forearms is easy with this paddle, in fact I can press the tip of my index finger and thumb together with both hands so the shaft rattles around inside the circle and still paddle quite well. What's amazing is that you don't seem to have to give up anything in the way of high performance to get this forgiving nature.

At our request Lightning's shafts are more oval than most others. Hank uses a longer shaft ovalling mold (that a decade ago we hounded him for years to build) giving his shafts a much longer oval grip area than most paddles. When you move your hands on the shaft you still get the same hand fitting oval "feel" (and great paddle control with a light grip that lots of oval provides).

So far we’ve been describing the glass Lightning paddle. Ultralight Graphite Lightning's have the same great feel and control but the overall weight and swing weight are scarcely noticeable! After paddling with an Ultralight Lightning the weight of other paddles will become annoying when you go back to them. So take caution: you will become addicted by trying an Ultralight paddle just once and may lose your tolerance for other paddles. A one-piece Ultralight weighs about 1# 5oz., half the weight of many quality paddles.

For years I resisted a graphite paddle. Graphite blades were black and this made them nearly invisible to other boaters. Blades waving up and down are the most noticeable part of a kayaker. It seemed prudent in a world of drag boats and drunks to have high visibility paddle blades. We could have added reflective tape or painted the black graphite blades a bright color but that would have added weight as well as visibility. We carried a few black graphite paddles for racers and customers that wanted them, but for the above reasons (and the high price) we couldn't get behind them for the average paddler. The price also seemed high just to save a five or six ounces (Note: this was before "Ultralight" Lightning’s were introduced, they were ten ounces less than the Standard glass paddle at that time. More recently some excess weight has been shaved off the glass paddles and the difference is now about 6 ounces.

When Hank introduced the Ultralight he sent us one for comment. Once we tried it we were hooked and knew others would love it as much as we did. However, we were concerned about the visibility of black blades. Deciding to sacrifice cosmetics for function, we had Lightning add some white pigment in the resin to brighten up the blades without adding weight. This works well but causes a mottled appearance where the graphite weave shows through. If you're looking for perfect cosmetics you will pay for the extra weight with every stroke you take. We'll take function every time.

I know $339.95 is a lot of money to pay for a paddle, but I also know that if you try an Ultralight Lightning you not only won't return it (under our "free trial" guarantee) but will consider the money to have been well spent. If you let your paddling partners try it "for just a couple of minutes", they won't want to give it back. You'll insist because now that you have been spoiled by your Ultralight, their paddle feels more like a shovel. When you finally get them to give your paddle back, the difference will be even more noticeable to them and they will be dissatisfied with their old club. They will soon be calling us to order their own Ultralight Lightning. We love it!

I feel like a drug pusher reminding you of the free-trial you get with our 30 day money-back return policy, because I know you will become addicted the first time you try an Ultralight Lightning. Because they aren't as tough the fiberglass version we don’t recommend them for paddling powerfully up shallow rivers where hard shocks on the rocks are likely or for use in ocean breakers big enough to cause your kayak to do an ender. Maybe surf waves are called BREAKers for a good reason. Because the shaft wall is thin and stiff you should also try to avoid hitting or pressing a graphite shaft against a hard edge or point load that could dimple the thin wall. Graphite shaft breakage is rare but, unlike the fiberglass shaft, breakage does happen on occasion. The present graphite shafts are now stronger some of the earlier ones.

Lightning Standard blades (7 1/2" x 16") are asymmetrical and the stock color is white,. We stock: 0 degree and 75 degree (right or left) feather. We also stock some with slightly narrower fiberglass shafts (for smaller hands). Ultralight shafts are the same diameter as the thinner glass shafts. (I have huge hands and they feel just fine to me.) We stock most Lightning's in 220cm. and 230cm. (and some in longer and shorter lengths). Custom colors are $10 extra. Custom lengths, flat blades, smaller and longer blade sizes and symmetrical blades are all available. If you want to design your own shape send a pattern that will fit inside 8.5" by 21". However, I have tested many other blade shapes and sizes (using a saber-saw for instant new blade shapes) and couldn't do any better than the standard asymmetrical shape.

Expedition Glass Lightning:

One-piece (about 1# 11oz)

Two-piece (about 1# 13oz)

Ultralight Graphite shaft and blades:

One-piece (about 1# 5oz.)

Two-piece (about 1# 6.5oz.)

A few years ago Greg Barton stopped by our shop to talk paddles. He had been making some of the lightest canoe paddles available and wanted to bring that technology to the construction of sea kayak paddles. We talked a lot about design features desirable for sea kayakers. We told him our criteria for a great sea kayak paddle and gave him Matt’s Sea Kayaker magazine article "In Search of the Perfect Paddle". Several months later Greg returned with a prototype for us to try. It was an amazing paddle. We had very little to criticize, Lightning finally has a real challenger in the lightweight, strong, feels right, and all-around great paddle category. Now that Greg is making paddles the choice is a lot harder for those who want the best. Epic's forgiving neutral feel is hard to distinguish from Lightning’s (even switching back and forth between them every few minutes, as I did). Epic's foam core blades are more buoyant, they lift out of the water on their own at the end of a stroke. Also a slashing high speed (racing) sideways sculling stroke seemed a little more controlled. While Epic’s smooth blades pick up and fling around far less water than most paddles, Lightning’s thinner blade edges pick up even less. Otherwise, it is a toss-up, both are absolutely great paddles. I didn’t think it was possible but Epic paddles weigh virtually the same as Lightning’s. The competitive instincts that made Greg an Olympic champion are evident in his top quality paddles. 

In early 2002 Greg introduced a less expensive line with thin (as opposed to foam core) blades which he calls "Hybrid Construction" because of the mix of fiberglass with 30 to 40% carbon in the shafts and blades. The hybrid shaft combined with the resin-transfer foam filled (smooth backed) blades he calls "Deluxe Hybrid Construction". Even the less expensive Epic "Hybrid" construction paddles weigh less than many other companies carbon (graphite) "top of the line" paddles.

Epic’s epoxy blades are glued into a shaft that Greg molds into an oval shape during the shaft's construction (rather than being squeezed into place after heating a round shaft--like most paddles with oval shafts). Because of this the oval in the shaft extends all the way out to the blade joint. This increases the stiffness in that area and reduces any stress riser where the shaft transitions from oval to round in this high stress area between the hand and the blade.

 We once stocked "Active Touring" models in 0 and 75 degree feathers in one-piece, as well as Length-Lock and Std. two-piece (button joint). "Active Touring" (formerly "Wayfarer") blades are 47.5 x 18cm.(18.7 by 7.1 inches) & 625sq. cm (105 sq. inch). "Relaxed Touring" (formerly "Odyssey") blades are available. They are 50cm. by 16cm. (19.7 by 6.3") & 600sq. cm (93 sq. in). Lengths available: 210 to 240 cm. in 5cm. increments. The "Length-Lock" two-piece joint is adjustable for any feather and can vary the length of the paddle over a 10 cm. range. 

Greg also has designed two sizes of wing paddles he calls the "Mid-Wing" and "Large Sprint Wing". We don’t recommend wing paddles for kayak touring but racers should take notice! Prices are $30 less than the touring blades (below) for the same construction type.

Note: Epic's "Full Carbon" and "Deluxe Hybrid" paddles included a fitted paddle bag made of soft cloth to help protect your paddle from nicks and dings when you are off the water. This cover is available separately for $24.95 (specify one or two piece paddle).

Epic’s "Hybrid Construction" (30 to 40% carbon):

One-piece (about 1# 10oz)
Two-piece (about 1# 11.5oz)
Adjustable two-piece (~1#12oz)

Deluxe "Signature" Hybrid Const. (hybrid shaft w/foam core hybrid blade)(includes protective soft fabric paddle cover):

One-piece (about 1# 11oz)
Two-piece (about 1# 12.5oz)
Adjustable two-piece (~1#13oz)

Epic's "Full Carbon Construction" (includes paddle cover):

One-piece (about 1# 5oz)

Two-piece (about 1# 6.5oz.)

Adjustable two-piece (~1#7oz)

Aquabound paddles are eye pleasing and beautiful. However, good looks is not the reason we decided to stock them. Of all the paddles we've ever tested, these had the most stable, flutter free blade designs. The dihedral blades didn't flutter much even when accelerating hard from a standing start. Impressive!

Beside reducing flutter the shape of these paddle blades make them among the solidest bracing and most forgiving paddles we have  used. Powerful yet predictable. The low brace and backstroke are especially solid in relation to many paddles. The sculling high brace is effortless because there is little concern the dihedral power face on these strong pressure molded blades will catch and dive.

Having seen many companies paddles that leaked at the glue joint (or even right through the porous fiberglass weave of their hollow blades) we were at first very cautious about selling these impressive handling paddles because of the epoxied-on blades. Joe Matuska, the designer and builder, patiently explained the "trade secrets" that insure his glue joints won't leak. So far we have never seen or heard about a leaky Aquabound. Joe has over two decades of experience as a paddle maker and it shows in these fine products. We stock Aquabound paddles between 210cm (84.5"), and 240cm (94.5") lengths.  The glass shaft AMT paddles compare favorably to many $200 paddles (even in weight). We think they are a great bargain. We don't stock the graphite AMT's (except in four-piece because of the low visibility of black blades and little price advantage over a glass Lightning or Epic paddle of even less weight) We stock them in 4-piece because we think the Carbon AMT's are the best  reasonably priced, lightweight paddle for folding kayakers who want to fit their paddle in the kayak bag--these days you are unlikely to be able to carry-on a 2-piece paddle yet it is long enough it could easily be damaged protruding from checked luggage). Blades: Navigator--17 by 6.25", Tripper--19 by 6", Expedition--19 by 6.25". The Seaclude has a slightly more flexible nylon blade that is the same size and shape as the AMT Navigator. Formerly the Seaclude was only available with an aluminum shaft. We find aluminum shafts too stiff for our taste so we finally got Joe to make some Seacludes for us with fiberglass shafts. The fiberglass shafted Seclude is far and away the best paddle we know of at these prices. For those whose main paddle is a top of the line ultra light graphite model this is probably the best value you will find for a spare you wouldn't mind paddling with if you broke your ultra light paddle on the first day of a long week trip.

Although you may never use it, you should carry a spare. At under $60, the Aquabound Flaire is cheap insurance. With a spare you can paddle to windward to recover that lovely lightweight paddle that a gust snatched from your grip. Without a spare you might be flailing around with your hands trying to stay upright as offshore winds take you away from your dropped paddle and towards China. Maybe you should use a paddle leash on your regular paddle too--see our free Paddle Leash offer below.

For a "cheap spare" paddle (or budget paddle to go with a recreational kayak) we have decided to replace the Carlisle "cheap spare paddle" we had carried for years with the new Aquabound Flaire 4-piece paddle. We feel the Flaire's oval shaft, lighter weight, 4-piece convenience, and much better in water feel more than make up for a little higher price. While no match for their glass shafted Seaclude model, Aquabound's Flaire model paddles better than many paddles that cost up to three times as much. Spend what you save buying this cheap spare paddle to buy the best primary paddle you can afford. You won't regret buying a top quality lightweight paddle. 

Aquabound AMT , Navigator, Tripper or Expedition:

Two-piece, glass shaft  (about 2# 9oz)

Four-piece, glass shaft  (about 2# 10oz)

Four-piece, graphite  (about 1# 15oz)

Aquabound's Seaclude blades w/fiberglass shafting:

Two-piece, glass shaft  (about 2# 8oz)

Four-piece, glass shaft  (about 2# 9oz)

Aquabound's Flaire w/glass-filled nylon blades:

Four-piece, anodized aluminum shaft  (~ 2# 12oz)

At the 1997 West Coast Sea Kayaking Symposium I "discovered" Grey Owl paddles. I was impressed by the nice woods and functionally elegant shapes. I didn’t get a chance to try them out then but ordered one each of five Grey Owl models to test and evaluate. The Sirocco, Tempest and Spindrift models were impressive in action. We thought the lightest weight (Tempest) model was the best value. I liked the lighter fiberglass (Sirocco) and graphite (Tempest and Spindrift) two-piece joints on those models (rather than metal joints in their less expensive Dragonfly and Mistral models). the Spindrift was essentially the same as the Tempest but with a fiberglass layer on the front and back of each blade. While this no doubt made the Spindrift blade somewhat stronger it also made them cost more, and more importantly to us, made them heavier in the blades. For those reasons we chose the Tempest as our favorite paddle in their fine paddle line. They have held up very well. Like the most expensive wood paddles, they are constructed with laminated shafts and laminated blades. In a wood paddle laminated shafts have proven to be much stronger than non-laminated shafts. A urethane tip and tough urethane varnish also help with durability. Woods used include: walnut, ash, white cedar, bass, and butternut. They look gorgeous and at about 36 ounces the Tempest is lighter than most other wood paddles on the market so that is the model we stock. Although not as lightweight as an Epic paddle they have a very similar in water feel (and that is strong praise indeed). 

Blades: 19.5 by 6.375". Lengths available: 215 to 250 cm. We mostly stocked 220 and 230 cm. lengths. We sold a lot of them to paddlers who were building wood kayaks and want to stay with the "wood" theme with the paddle. We think they are a great value in an especially attractive paddle.

Tempest (two-piece, about 2# 4oz.)

Matt Broze's simple paddle leash made from stretchy 3/16" natural rubber shock cord and a nylon clip works better than any others we have tried. Because it can stretch to more than twice its length when necessary, it can be short enough not to drag in the water or flop around on your deck. Unlike phone-cord style leashes it won’t tangle with itself (becoming suddenly way too short) or "clack" on your deck with each paddle stroke because of its weight. Matt’s leash is light and stores wrapped up on the paddle shaft so it’s always available when the wind starts to pick up. We included it free on any paddle over $100.00. Make your own from 3.5 feet of 3/16" shock cord and a nylon shock cord hook (available from West Marine and other marine stores.

The manufacturers guarantee their paddles against defects in materials or workmanship (Epic one year, Aquabound two years, Lightning one year. It is unlikely you will need the guarantees on any of these quality paddles. In the over twenty years we sold Lightning paddles the only problems have been: one two-piece that had a foam plug that was defective, several ultralight/graphite shafts broken due to accidental abuse (mostly unfeathered paddles used in surf) and most recently a cracked joint due to the paddle being bent when only partially assembled. We either fixed the paddle in a way satisfactory to the customer or provided those with broken paddles a replacement paddle compliments of Lightning's generous guarantee. We dropped some companies paddles (that we otherwise have liked paddling with) because we have found those companies "difficult" when it comes to standing behind their paddles (or the replacement process is long and tedious leaving our customer waiting up the proverbial creek--or more likely with a paddle we loaned them during the wait). We try to protect our customers from buying troublesome products. We want it to be as pleasant as possible for customers to shop with us and therefore we usually become involved with any of our customer's problems. That gave us lots of incentive to try to avoid selling something that will later become a problem.

2005 Matt and Cam Broze
Mariner Kayaks