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Bent vs. Straight Shaft Paddles—A Jacobson vs. Callan Debate

Glenn MacGrady

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I solved this issue 38 years ago by always carrying a bent and a straight paddle on all day and overnight trips since then. Sometimes on non-portage trips I'll take three or four paddles because paddle variety is one of the delicious spices of canoeing life.

In general, I prefer bent paddles for straight ahead calm water paddling that requires mimimal turning, and straight paddles for whitewater, technical currents and scary wind-wave lake paddling.
 
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Yes, the easiest solution is just to carry a bent shaft and a straight shaft which is what I usually do on rivers with no, or only mild whitewater.

For purely flat water paddling, like most of the Boundary Waters/Quetico trips I have taken, I might take only bent shafts. But even then, it is convenient to have a cheap straight shaft paddle if it becomes necessary to push off from shore or off the bottom.

For whitewater, unless it is some type of drop/pool river with very long pools, I will take only straight shaft paddles. Although it might be possible to do them, bent shaft paddles are at a distinct disadvantage in executing certain pries and draws and especially a low brace.

Bent shaft paddles are definitely better for sit and switch paddling. Apart from greater forward stroke efficiency the upward angle of the paddle face as it comes across the boat makes it easier to clear the gunwales cleanly on the switch.
 
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I'm in the take one of each crowd. Since much of my time on the water is spent making sure I am maintaining racing stroke tone, I will always have one of my favorite carbon bents for power strokes, but I don't switch sides very often when paddling solo. But much other time is spent lazily cruising shorelines, then nothing beates the pleasure of a finely tuned otter tail for maneuvering strokes or doing Cansdian strokes over an open distance for the fun of it.
 
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"We asked two of lakewater canoeing’s most respected paddlers"

I have nothing against either of these two paddlers but popularity does not equate to "respected".
 
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I've been using bent shaft paddles exclusively since I bought some Al Camp paddles back in 1980.
12 degree works well for me for up to class II whitewater.
I've tried some carbon shaft paddles...too harsh on my joints.
I much prefer an imperceptibly flexing shaft.
The recent batch of paddles that I built have 2 oz cloth wrapped on the edges, and the phenolic tips have proven to hold up on previously built paddles, for 30 years or more! Lots of rock encounters, gravel bank push-offs, use as a hiking staff, if I ever break one, I'll just spend another $30 in materials and make another!


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I like to have both when I’m tripping in composite boats and light weight gear. I paddle those different. When I paddled a week in ADK last October I had a MItchell carbon straight (surreal?) and a black pearl bent. I didn’t use the bentshaft the entire time. I did determine that i much prefer the wooden paddles over carbon. I recently bought an Old Mustache Paddle and it seems to weigh about the same as the Black Pearl when holding both at the same time; I really like the Old Mustache bent and am saving up to buy another in August. On the 7-10 day lake country trips I usually go with the W/C prospector and then it’s two straight tail paddles, no bent shafts.

As a side note its alarming how many modern sugar island style paddle makers are not making paddles anymore. I contacted Grey Owl very recently about the Owl Feather paddle and they no longer make it according to the person who responded. I hope it’s not a trend. Mitchell paddles were my favorite. I have more than a half dozen Mitchell and Whiskey Jack bent and straight paddles that can‘t be replaced now.
 
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Over the years I've had different brands of paddles and in the early years it was all straight blade. In 2001 I bought two different Mitchell paddles, one a double bent and the other a single bent. The double is 50" and the single is 48". These are the only paddles I use now regardless of the water. WW they both work fine, flat water all is good. I have a bunch of straight blades that haven't seen water in years. Guess it's all how you paddle.

dougd
 
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I dunno, the bent shaft is my backup paddle, the only reason for that is because it is carbon fiber, so very light to portage while it stays tied in the canoe. If I could afford two straight shaft carbon fiber paddles, the bent would stay home. I have used the bent a fair amount, but I just can't get a feel for it, plus I've never really been accepted by the cool kids, what with all my cussing and drinkin.
 
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So… two guys have a different idea of how to git’r done. Each emphasizes a different approach or set of optimized circumstances. Nothing earth shattering there!

Strangely enough, I did learn the J-stroke with a bent shaft but I like it better with a straight. Now I’m learning to pitch the blade which is interesting. So much you can do with a paddle!

I’m also in the carry both camp, or carry 3 since an ottertail gets too long in many of my waters. For the most part I can get there with either paddle, water depth permitting, so doing this answers the “two is one and one is none” mantra. I either need to buy a cheap strong plastic paddle for pushing off, or I need to look at a shorter push pole for same.
 
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