Fixed or adjustable SUP paddles. What SUP paddle do you need?
Are you wondering about whether you need a fixed or an adjustable paddleboard paddle? Do you struggle to understand the performance differences between 1 , 2 and 3 piece SUP paddles? Don’t worry. You’re definitely not alone. But fret not, this article will hopefully help you understand the differences, and help you make the right choice for you.
SUP paddle weight
The lightest one piece 100% carbon paddles will weigh a featherlight 500 grams or less, whilst most alloy paddles packaged with paddleboard packages will weigh a shoulder-busting three or four times this. By some measures, if you’re a 75kg paddler on a 10kg board, you might wonder why this minor difference matters. And it’s a very valid question. Unless you’re an elite paddler, the difference between a 500gm and 600gm paddle will be unnoticeable and irrelevant to you, other than bragging rights of having the lightest paddle. But the difference between a 500gm and 2kg paddle is more significant. And bear in mind that the paddle is your engine, and most of your effort and wear & tear on your body, is generated through the forces you generate on the paddle. Repetitive movements with a weight that’s two or three times the very lightest can cause early fatigue, poor paddling technique, and general all round misery. In fact, we’ve heard stories of people who have almost given up SUP until they tried a better paddle. It’s also true that rotator cuff injuries are not uncommon in SUP, and a heavy paddle, alongside a poor technique, can rapidly increase your chances of injury.
If you’re someone who obsesses about weight and value, then you’ll find this graph interesting…
On a weight/price efficiency factor, our McConks fixed carbon SUP paddle comes out as the star buy!
Of course, it’s not just about the weight. Blade shape, size and angle can all have an equal impact on fatigue and developing good paddle technique, but individual preferences are more important for these factors. Therefore it’s much more difficult to say objectively one paddle is better than another. So that’s the subject for a future blog post.
A one piece paddle will be lighter than two or three piece paddles of similar blade size. Each connection/adjustment mechanism requires additional or thicker carbon fibre and adds additional weight.
And the difference between them will vary depending on the quality of the paddle. So a 100% 3k carbon fibre paddle will be about 80gm heavier for a two piece paddle, or about 200gm heavier for a three piece paddle. As the percentage of carbon decreases, then the weight penalty for two or three piece will increase. But again, don’t sweat the small stuff. Unless you’re an elite paddler, you probably won’t notice an 80gm difference.
If you’re only ever racing, if you only ever use a single inflatable SUP board, if you only ever surf on your SUP, then one fixed paddle might work for you. But surf performance, for example, is enhanced with a shorter stick and smaller blade. Race performance is improved with a longer carbon SUP stick. So if you’re a SUPper who likes to do a little bit of everything (as many are), or if you’re just starting out and don’t really know what type of arena you’re going to use your SUP in, then getting a fixed length paddle might turn out to be an expensive mistake. Unless of course you’ve got very deep pockets, have an understanding partner who lets you accumulate expensive kit, or preferably both.
Something that has long annoyed SUP paddlers about adjustable SUP paddles is the ability of the connector to always end up at the point at which your hand rests on the shaft. This is a serious frustration for some paddlers, and it’s the upper adjustment mechanism that your hand nearly always ends up over. So there’s no difference between a two piece or three piece paddle in this respect – a one piece wins outright if this is one of your big bugbears.
Stiffness and flex
This all comes down to the quality of the connections in adjustable SUP paddles. And it’s probably less about stiffness than consistency of flex. A single solid SUP paddle will have a very consistent flex from handle to blade. Because there are no connections, the carbon tube is a consistent thickness throughout its length (assuming it’s a quality tube), meaning that flex, and rebound from flex, is consistent and predictable. The more connections you have, the more the variability in the flex and rebound. For most paddlers, most of the time, we would content that this isn’t that significant an issue. But elite athletes disagree, and some people claim that they can really feel the benefit of the consistency of flex with a fixed piece paddle.
Some taller paddlers find that some three piece paddles don’t quite extend long enough for them, or that they have to have the top section at its extremities. This can put the connector and handle under stress, increasing the risk of failure. It can also generate too much flex in the top 30% of the paddle, decreasing performance. Although, there are some three piece paddles that have been designed with everyone in mind, even the tallest of paddlers.
The more moving parts anything has, the more points of weakness and failure there are. This is a simple fact of life, and is true no matter how good the connections are. Obviously, better quality paddles have better connections, and are less likely to fail. But even these, when compared to single piece paddles are more likely to fail. But this must be compared to the risks of travelling with a single, long piece of carbon, even if this travelling is only in your van!
Which leads us on to transportability
It goes without saying that the shorter the package is, the easier it is to transport. A three price paddleboard paddle is about 1m long in its longest piece. A one piece SUP paddle can be up to 2.3m long. So a three piece adjustable paddle can be thrown in the back of the car, can be put in an inflatable SUP bag, and can be carried on a plane. Also, if you ever need to ship a paddle anywhere, the shipping costs for anything over 2m are prohibitive. And no matter how well protected the paddle is, a 2.3m long pole is at greater risk of being damaged during 3rd party transport, and maybe even in the back of your van, than three 1m SUP paddle sections side by side in a padded bag. There’s strength in numbers you know!
Alloy SUP paddles are always cheap, poor quality paddles bundled with poor quality, budget SUP packages. Some of the worst on the market are no more than a very heavy kids toy, with a blade that flexes and loses all drive as you put the power on. Only the shaft of an alloy paddle is aluminium alloy. The blade will normally be polyurethane or polypropylene. There’s an adage in SUP which says that you can have fun on a bad board with a good paddle. But you can’t paddle a good board with a bad paddle. Alloy paddles have probably done more to put people off paddleboarding than any other single factor and should be avoided at all costs!
Glassfibre Nylon / PU SUP Paddles are a hybrid SUP paddle made from a glass fibre shaft and polypropylene or polyurethane blade. These are a really good paddle for beginners. Significantly lighter than alloy paddles, and normally with a better quality SUP blade, and one that doesn’t bend in a strong gust of wind, these are the best entry level paddle. And the best bit of all? A PP or PU blade is almost indestructible. So, if as a beginner, you scrape the blade along a reef, or smack it into a rock, it won’t be damaged. The fiberglass shaft also has a good level of flex for a beginner. Not being as stiff as a carbon SUP stick, it is more forgiving to bad paddle technique and is less likely to lead to injury or early fatigue.
A 100% Glassfibre SUP Paddle differs from fiberglass / PU SUP paddles by having a glass fibre blade. A glass fibre blade is stiffer than a PU or PP blade, losing less power to flex – therefore more efficient. And they’re lighter than PU/PP blades, and that reduced swing weight makes the paddling experience more pleasant. But the trade is that fibre glass blades are brittle and more prone to damage and dints than a PU/PP blade.
Carbon fibre SUP paddles are lighter and stiffer seems to be the current fashion for SUP paddles. The very lightest SUP paddles are 100% carbon 3k weave paddles. As the carbon percentage decreases, the weight increases. Carbon is also significantly stiffer than glass fibre, and therefore each phase of the paddle stroke generates kinetic force (forward movement), so carbon paddles are the most efficient. However, carbon paddles are very unforgiving of poor paddling technique, and may lead to long term injury if your paddle technique is poor.
Carbon SUP paddles typically also have more attention paid to the blade design – with a more complex shape and dihedral that further improves stability and efficiency in the stroke. McConks carbon SUP paddles for example are shaped by a CNC cutter and have been designed with a fluid dynamics modelling software to optimise the shape and dihedral of the blade.
You can get cheaper carbon paddles with a lower percentage of carbon and higher percentage of glass. This increases the weight and reduces the stiffness. And reduces the cost. The price benefits make these lower percentage carbon paddles attractive to many. However, before you make a similar choice, just bear in mind that McConks 100% carbon SUP paddles are lower cost than many brands 70% or 50% carbon paddles – lighter and stiffer. And we use the very best technology to design them.
So, to wrap up this blog, what our main recommendations?
- Never buy an alloy paddle. You will hate it within minutes, and will be upgrading to a better paddle soon. If you’re buying a SUP package that comes with an alloy paddle, decline the alloy paddle and upgrade to a better paddle as soon as you can afford to!
- Glass fibre SUP paddles with nylon/polyprop/polyurethane blades are best for beginners. They give the perfect balance between value, performance, weight and stiffness. And they are more forgiving to poor paddle technique.
- If you’re ready for the step to carbon SUP paddles, if you want the lightness and the stiffness, and you’re confident that your paddle technique can cope with the stiffness of carbon, go for it. Figure out your budget, see what’s within your budget, and try lots of different paddles. But you won’t find a medium bladed 100% premium carbon fibre paddle for less money than McConks paddles. And McConks paddles consistently beat everyone else in our weight/price value.
- If you’re searching for marginal gains and elite performance, and you have deep pockets, lots of storage, and a very understanding partner, then fixed length SUP paddles are for you. For everyone else, two or three piece paddles are a better value/performance compromise.
- Oh, and have fun on the water
Key differences between SUP paddles
Windsurfers have been battling with this problem for years. How to separate to pieces of carbon fibre/fibreglass that have seized up after a bit of neglect.
And the same problem happens with split paddles. Salt or sand can get between the male and female connectors when putting them together and make separation after use almost impossible. And the problem is even worse with alloy paddles. Saltwater can react with metal and actually fuse the pieces together.
So firstly, prevention is better than cure. So make sure you keep your connectors clear of sand and salt water as far as possible. Not always possible in a shoreline gale, but try. And make sure you separate your paddle as soon as possible after finishing, clean it with freshwater, and always keep it in its protective bag.
And mud, grit, sand, saltwater can all get into the connector if you have a loose connection, so keep your connector as tight as possible (without overtensioning!)
But, sometimes, after a paddle, we don’t always have the energy to properly washdown the kit. You just chuck the paddle in the back of the van in one piece, with good intentions to wash it down and separate it when you get home. But when you get home it’s late, you need dinner and a beer, so you leave it until Monday. And Monday turns to Tuesday, and before you know it a week has gone past and the paddle is now stuck firm. So, what do you do?
So assuming you’ve enlisted the help of friends and tried brute force, twisting and yanking, the next thing to try is lubrication.
Letting washing up liquid seep into the connection overnight is often enough to allow enough movement for twisting and yanking on day two. If it’s not looser on day two, then leaving it soaking with washing liquid any longer won’t work.
So the next thing to try is hot and cold. Put the kettle on, and also fill a bowl with ice and water. Once the kettle has boiled, poor the icy cold water over the part of the shaft that has the male connector, and then the boiling water over the female connector. If you’re able then poor the icy water inside the paddle (this is sometimes possible with 3 piece paddles). And then resort to twisting, yanking and pulling again. Using strap handles to get a better grip on the stick often yields dividends. And make sure to keep enough in the kettle to make yourself a cuppa in celebration or commiseration!
If this doesn’t work, things are getting desperate. You’re now getting into the territory of methods that might damage your stick.
You can repeat the above replacing the icy water with freeze spray (available from most good hardware shops)
Trying to bend the paddle enough to slide a butter knife between the two section can work. Using the knife as a lever to prise the two sections far enough apart enough to allow lubricant or freeze spray to penetrate more thoroughly can also work, but you risk damaging the carbon fibre at the end of the sections.
The very last thing to try is using a vice to hold the upper section firm (use a teatowel to protect the shaft as best you can, but there is a real risk of damaging the stick now!), and twist the blade with all your strength.
If all of this hasn’t worked, the you’ve got a veritable sword in the stone. Then all you can do is take a saw to the shaft. Sawing through the male section will hopefully allow you to work the stuck male section out from the inside, and then at least leave you with an undamaged female section. Obviously this is your very last resort. Unless you know King Arthur.