Sunday, February 26, 2017

Strokes Notes: Why I feather

(This is the first in what I hope will be a series of entries describing my take on some issues related to kayaking technique. It is a series aimed at others like me: strokes nerds. You know who you are. You've watched that Roger Schumann bow rudder video 13 times, and you've spent days trying to figure out if the inside or outside edge works better on your hanging draw. Pretty much all of my decisions about paddling style involve an agonizing analytical thought process. That's just how my brain works. So if you're a strokes nerd like me, maybe you'll find something interesting or even useful in these entries. And if you're not a strokes nerd... well, you've been warned...)

To feather, or not to feather? That is the question. As far as I’m concerned, you can pry my feathered paddle from my cold, dead hands. And in this entry I'm going to tell you why. I expect not everyone will agree with this position, so I invite counter-arguments, objections, and general rebuttal in the comments section. Or maybe someone will be moved to write a similar blog entry defending the unfeathered paddle. So here, in no particular order, are the three primary reasons that I feather my paddle.

1. I feather because it just feels right. 

Once I made the decision to feather, it took me about a week or so to develop a feel for a feathered paddle. That was a pretty miserable week. Switching from unfeathered to feathered is an awkward experience, and it takes some dedication until your strokes feel normal again. The good news is that once you've gotten a few weeks of feathered paddling under your belt, you'll forget why it felt so weird to begin with. The bad news is that you can easily remind yourself how weird it felt by just unfeathering again. At this point I've been paddling with a feather for over 3 years, and I hate, hate, HATE going back to unfeathered paddling. 

The point here is that there is nothing "natural" about an unfeathered paddle. I'd wager that my feathered paddle feels every bit as natural in my hands as an unfeathered paddle may feel in someone else's. And this goes for just about every important aspect of paddling. After 3 years of feathering I'm convinced that my body knows instinctively where my hands are on my paddle and how my blades are oriented at all times. I have no reason to think that the feather ever causes me to misapply a stroke, or to miss a critical brace or a roll. This, of course, is a common argument against the feather, that it introduces uncertainly in bracing because the two blades are oriented differently with respect to the water. I'm willing to concede this point only in a very limited sense. I believe the notion that a feathered paddle makes bracing more difficult applies primarily to "practice bracing." Here's the scenario: You're in a class, sitting in a good low brace position with your elbows up and the back faces of your blades perfectly parallel to the water's surface on both sides. In that position you're ready to do your "demonstration quality" low braces. But if your paddle is feathered, one of your blades will always be angled awkwardly toward the water, setting you up to miss a brace on that side; you've got to keep adjusting your blade angle every time you switch sides for another brace. The problem with this argument is that bracing almost never works that way. Here's the reality: You're paddling forward in rough water, you've just finished off a stroke on your right side, and you're hit with a surprise wave that throws you over onto your left. Quick!--how is your left blade oriented with respect to the water? Feather or no feather, your body has to know without thinking how to shift the angles of that left arm--shoulder, elbow, wrist--to position the blade for a good, safe, solid brace. There's nothing automatic about this but that practice makes it so. 

So I paddle with the feather because it just feels right. Calm water or rough, paddling straight or carving turns, high brace or low brace. It always feels right to have my paddle feathered, because 3 years of practice have made it so. An unfeathered paddle--not so much. In fact, I'm willing to bet that if I went out in rough water right now with an unfeathered paddle I'd be VERY prone to miss a brace when I needed it. No thanks.

You may have noticed that this isn’t so much an answer to the question “Why feather?” as it is an answer to the question “Why not feather?” Fair enough. But I’m not done yet… 

2. I feather because headwinds are a drag. 

You've probably all heard this argument: With a feathered paddle, the off water blade is conveniently angled to slice through a strong headwind. This claim is pretty obviously true, but it almost always invites counterarguments. For one thing, the beneficial effect of the feather would obviously be most pronounced with a 90 degree feather, and hardly anyone paddles with a 90 degree feather. For another, the feather is only reliably helpful in a perfect headwind. In any kind of crosswind, a feathered blade may be just as likely to catch the wind as an unfeathered one. In fact, it’s possible that a strong crosswind on a feathered blade might even have a destabilizing effect by pushing the paddler over sideways. And wouldn't an unfeathered paddle actually give you an advantage in a tailwind? This is also all true. But if that means it's all a wash, then why am I just so happy to have a feathered paddle in my hands when that wind kicks up in my face?

While it's obviously true that the wind can come from anywhere, wind resistance will have its most pronounced effect countering your forward movement. And the thing moving forward most is your off-water (top) hand; not only is your boat moving into the wind, but that hand is moving forward relative to the boat. If you haven't thought a lot about how headwinds affect you on the water, it's worth checking out this short Wikipedia article on "apparent wind". Basically, if there's a 10 mph wind blowing in my face and I'm paddling forward at 3 mph, I'm feeling a 13 mph headwind. If my off-water hand is moving forward at another 3 mph relative to my boat (just a random estimate, I'd guess it's probably quite a bit faster than this, depending on cadence), then my hand is pushing against a 16 mph wind. That’s a lot of resistance on the off water blade if it’s squared to the wind. (Based on the surface area of my Werner Cyprus, it works out to about 0.43 pounds of resistance with every stroke.) In contrast, if I had a 10 mph tailwind in the same situation, my off water hand would only feel a 4 mph wind pushing it from the back. Headwinds have a whole lot more effect on you than tailwinds. The result is that having your blade squared to a headwind will not only slow the boat down, the blade effectively acting as a mini sail, but that it will also put significantly greater strain on your shoulder as you attempt to push that blade forward into the wind. Half a pound of resistance doesn’t sound like much, but try doing 10,000 reps. That’s a workout you probably don't need. 

So yes, how much a feather helps you does depend on where the wind is coming from and how your blade is angled relative to it. But the feather provides relief when you MOST need it, when the wind is right in your face. It could prevent your trip from becoming a very prolonged and potentially exhausting set of shoulder presses. 

3. I feather because I don't want to break my wrists.

This one is a bit more complicated.

Try this experiment. Grab a two-piece paddle, ideally one with a loose ferrule that allows you to easily rotate the two halves of the shaft relative to each other. Sit on a bench, stool, or chair, something that will allow you to get into a catch position with your paddle. Now lock the paddle in the unfeathered position (zero degree feather angle) and hold it like you’re ready to paddle. Your hands should be out in front of you, with the power faces of both blades facing toward you. Maintaining a firm grip on the paddle shaft with both hands (don’t let the paddle shaft rotate in your hands), move yourself into the catch position on your left side, with the left blade down toward the "water" and the right blade up in recovery. Now look at your top wrist. Unless you’re some kind of freak of nature, it will be bent. In fact, if you have a high angle stroke, it may be bent uncomfortably. Now, separate the two halves of the paddle so that they are still connected but free to rotate relative to each other, with the ferrule unlocked. Do the same thing, coming to a catch position, but keep both of your wrists locked in the unbent, neutral position. You will notice that as you move to the catch, the two halves of the paddle shaft rotate relative to each other. Stop again at the catch position; your top wrist should be unbent, but now your blades are feathered. That angle between the two blades is your natural feather angle--it is the angle you should feather your blades so that you don't have to break your wrists on your forward stroke.

The ergonomics of the forward stroke are such that the off-water wrist will tend to break at the catch; again, this is more dramatic the higher the angle of the stroke. An unfeathered paddle combined with a firm grip on the shaft are thus a recipe for unnecessary strain on the wrists. If you paddle this way with a very low angled stroke, the bend in the wrists may not even be noticeable. But with a higher angle stroke, this approach could result not only inefficiency, but also tendinitis.  

There are actually two solutions to this ergonomic problem. Mine, as you might have guessed, is to feather my paddle. I've found that a 45 degree feather is a pretty natural angle for my typical stroke, which is relatively high angle. I maintain my right hand as my control hand at all times during the forward stroke; my right hand holds the paddle in place and my paddle shaft just rotates freely in my left hand. With this arrangement, whether I'm catching on my right or my left the blade is always in a good solid catch position while my off-water wrist can stay safe and neutral. The remarkable thing about this is that my wrists and hands don't have to do anything to position my blade for the catch. The rotation of my body and the movement of my arms on the recovery is sufficient to put my blade right where it needs to be, on either side.

The second solution is, I imagine, almost universal among kayakers who don't want to feather their paddles. You simply forget about the firm grip--or, more precisely, you switch the control hand with every stroke. With this approach, the hands are held loosely on the paddle shaft (usually a good idea in any case), and with each stroke the on-water hand becomes the control hand. This allows the paddle to remain unfeathered and the wrists to maintain a neutral unbent angle, and still enables effective catches on both sides. It will work with any angle stroke, though the degree to which the hands must work to shift blade angle is more pronounced with a high angle stroke. (If you want to see a good demonstration of how this control hand switching approach works, check out this video. It's a good explanation of what many kayakers probably do without thinking about it.)

Why do I prefer the feathered paddle solution? My reasoning is based on a simple premise: Every sprint kayaker in the world can't be wrong. If switching control hands is a viable option, why wouldn't world class sprinters adopt it just as frequently as the alternative? My guess is that the answer has something to do with the challenges associated with finding the catch efficiently, especially at high cadences. With an appropriately feathered paddle the hands don't have to do anything to put the blade in a strong catch position, everything is determined by the ergonomics of the forward stroke. In contrast, if you're alternating control hands the hands are doing lots of work, with every stroke, to find the catch. Obviously this is doable, but what would happen if one adopted this approach at 120 strokes per minute? During a sprint the first inches of drive are absolutely critical, and there is very little room for error at the catch; the paddler must have confidence that the blade is entering the water at exactly the right angle to apply pressure immediately. I suspect it could be very difficult to accomplish this by alternating control hands at very high cadence. And maybe this is why kayak racers appear to be one group that is unanimous on the “to feather or not to feather” question. They just cannot afford even slight uncertainty at the catch. And what better way to eliminate that uncertainty than to make the catch position automatic? Just "set it and forget it”: determine the right feather angle for your stroke and you'll have a perfect catch every time without your hands or your blade needing to do any work at all. 

So I feather because it gives me confidence in my catch, at any speed and any cadence, without having to worry about poor ergonomics. All I have to do is focus on my forward stroke form, and my feather takes care of finding the catch for me. 

These are my reasons for sticking with the feather. It should be clear from what I've said above that these reasons depend quite a bit on my own paddling style. Since I adopt a high angle stroke, the ergonomic benefits of the feather are considerable and, at the same time, I can employ a large enough feather angle that it makes a significant difference in a headwind. If you use a low angle stroke, you will have an entirely different set of criteria on which to base your decision. I'm sure that there are plenty of other arguments both for and against feathering that I've not addressed here, and there are also lots of details that I've left out of the above account, since I figure not many people want to read a 12 page treatise on paddle feathering. In the end, of course, your decision to feather or not to feather is yours. But as with all such decisions related to paddling skills, I recommend that you make it for good reasons, and not simply because someone told you there's a “right” way to do it. So if you’ve been wondering about why someone might feather a paddle, I invite you to think about the reasons I've laid out here. And then think about the reasons not to feather. And then get out on the water and practice, practice, practice until you find what works best for you.


  1. Very nice writeup and a good argument about what is "natural," But, John, if you adopted a Greenland paddle you wouldn't have to think about any of this. :-) So relaxing, that skinny stick. Come on, join our little Greenland cult!

  2. Great blog. Thank you! As an Engineer, I loved section 2. I have tried feathering from time to time and found that I can get on a rhythm when paddling forward but my brain connections get crossed when trying to maneuver around obstacles with back strokes. Probably I can solve that with more practice.