Deciding what size of canoe paddle is right for you is easy. The shaft length should equal the distance from your shoulder to the water – easy! The problems start when you try to determine that distance.
Let’s start at the top and look at proper body mechanics for canoeing. While doing a forward stroke, your grip hand should be at, or slightly below, shoulder height. Many people paddle with their grip hand much higher than the shoulder and as a result they are wasting energy. They also expose the shoulder joint to a significantly greater chance of injury.
Now, how do we determine the distance from the shoulder to the water? If your local paddle shop has a test tank, you can bring your canoe, fill it with your typical load, sit in your usual position and then measure. At the old store the “test tank” was a big puddle that forms out back after the spring melt and lasts for about 5 days. The other 360 days of the year we use a different method of calculating shaft length.
To do it yourself, sit on a solid chair or bench and find a friend with a measuring tape. If you sit in low-slung canoe seats and/or usually carry a lot of gear in your boat, then measure from the seat to your eyebrows. If, on the other hand, you normally kneel and/or usually paddle an empty canoe, then you will be sitting higher on the water and need a longer shaft. Measure from the seat to your hairline or the top of your forehead, whichever comes first.
To further complicate matters, manufacturers describe the size of a paddle as its overall length, but we are only concerned with the shaft length for correct fit. A bent shaft paddle and an ottertail-style paddle with the same shaft length can be 8” different in overall length! So when you go shopping for that perfect length paddle, bring your friend with the measuring tape and measure the shaft of the paddle you want to buy.
Alternatively, you can use some silly-old-wives-tale-method of picking a paddle length that is too long. But, be warned I’ll beat you to that great campsite with the incredible view, and I’ll have healthy shoulders to boot!