One of the first equipment conversations that come up with our guests is paddle length for SUP surfing. Most SUP surfers’ paddles are too long; a flaw that is easy to spot in the line up. Paddle length has an impact on a high cadence paddle rhythm and maneuverability on the wave. This combination affects your surfing and the length of your paddle is key to bettering both. There are personal preferences and situations that play an obvious part in determining paddle length but for purposes of this piece, I’m assuming we are working with a healthy SUP surfer looking to maximize their ability on the wave. When it comes to surfing, your paddle length should approximately match your height, but be careful because it is not that simple.
If your paddle is more than a few inches taller than you, it is best to make incremental changes. Among many issues that could come up with drastic paddle length changes, the most important to avoid is injury. Dialing in your optimal paddle length through a process will help maintain proper muscle use and form. I personally enjoy this process, and so for fun, will delve further and discuss a few of the key variables that help determine ideal paddle length including; board thickness and volume, paddle technique, paddle blade length and surfing skill. The result will be unique for each person and may continue to change over time as his or her surfing develops.
Board Thickness & Volume
With a lower volume board your feet will sink deeper below the water’s surface. This effectively shortens the distance between the water level and your head compared to when you stand on land. Conversely, if you are on a higher volume thicker SUP leaving you standing 4” above the water’s surface the distance increases. By being shorter in the water you can compensate for this height change by shortening your paddle. How much depends on how close your feet are above, at, or below the water surface. For example, my ankles are under the water on my current board and right now my paddle is 5” shorter than my height.
Common sense rules that the lower the volume of the board, the more pronounced are the flaws in paddle technique. Additionally, standing on a board that is submerged underwater requires more power to lift it up on plane and accelerate. This is where efficiency and technique is key in order to effectively drive power without injury as you shorten your paddle. Proper technique offers the appropriate frame while your core body muscles provide the necessary power. This, followed by an efficient exit and quick recovery, set you up for the next stroke. A slightly shorter paddle shortens the time of each stroke thus speeding up your cadence.
Typical blade lengths can range from 15” – 19”. Two paddles, cut to the same length, one with a blade length of 17” and the other at 19”, will have a different feel. Though counterintuitive, the paddle with the 17” blade will feel longer because there is less blade to bury in the water. We can get into the details and although not as significant as board volume or the skill of the surfer, it can make a difference. The assumption is you are leveraging proper paddling technique and fully immersing the entire blade, regardless of shape, during the power phase of your stroke.
Two key elements to consider here are body compression and degree of fitness. Also, as you work to add more progressive turns to your SUP surfing, having a shorter paddle will make your paddle transitions smoother. Examples include your paddle change to the inside with a frontside cutback and your paddle change combo with a backside crossbow top turn.
A shorter paddle will highlight body weight distribution errors such as leaning on your paddle during turns compared to keeping centered over your hips. Additionally, as you surf with a more compressed body, a longer paddle becomes restrictive making you clumsier rather than fluid. As you maintain a coiled and engaged body, you shorten your body length profile. A higher degree of physical fitness leads to more core body use, engaged thighs and less injury.
All these variables are fun to explore, however, time on the water and your personal drive trumps all previous technical analysis. It just may not be practical to kit up with a new paddle every so often and/or take the chance of ruining your favorite paddle as you resize it. And unless you get out and surf enough to commit to multiple paddle lengths for the varied SUP disciplines, your efforts will have limited returns.
For those interested and committed to improving their SUP surfing, experimentation is a must. Make incremental changes to paddle length and take note of the differences. Each time you get a new board, re-examine your paddle length and optimize the pairing.
Above all else, embrace the perspective that you are surfing with a paddle. The paddle is not a cane meant to keep you from falling; it is a tool to leverage your surfing for power and speed and is meant to enhance your surfing.