Bent shaft paddles have been around for many years and because they are found all over the world (being used by native tribes) the actual origin is not fully known.
As a paddle maker and adventurer, I have a keen interest in bent shaft paddles and with over 40 years of paddling experience along with an internet connection and a sense of curiosity, I’ll tell you exactly what you need to know about bent shaft paddles.
What is a Bent Shaft Paddle?
A bent shaft paddle is a paddle whose blade is bent at the throat/neck of the paddle in order to maximize forward thrust through the entire range of the paddle stroke.
Most paddles are straight from the grip at one end, right to the very tip of the blade. A bent shaft paddle has an actual “bend” in the paddle right where the blade meets the shaft.
Some designs even include an angle in the shaft itself to supposedly enhance the efficiency of the design, though many learned paddlers (me included) believe the double bend in the shaft is probably much less efficacious and more of a feature to lure the paddler into buying it!
What is the Difference Between a Straight Shaft Paddle and a Bent Shaft Paddle?
The main difference between the two is that a straight shaft paddle is typically 100% straight from grip to tip (entire length) while a bent shaft paddle has a bend where the blade meets the shaft (known as the throat or neck of the paddle).
Some bent shafts have extra bends in the shaft itself.
The degree of the main bend at the throat of the paddle varies from around 7° to 15°. Outside of these 2 extremes will offer no significant advantage over a straight shaft paddle.
What is the Point of a Bent Shaft Paddle?
A bent shaft paddle allows the paddler to keep the blade more-or-less vertical, or at a 90° angle to the surface of the water for more of the paddle stroke range than a straight shaft paddle.
The general idea is to maximize FORWARD thrust, and that is accomplished by paddling while pushing water STRAIGHT BACK towards the stern of the canoe.
A straight shaft paddle will push water DOWN more at the start of the stroke, BACK at the middle of the stroke, and then UP towards the end of the stroke.
A bent shaft paddle actually does the same thing, but the DOWN and UP parts are less pronounced than with a straight shaft, and a longer period of time is spent pushing water BACK towards the stern. That is what makes it a more efficient paddle and why it is used almost exclusively by serious racers.
Using the same basic mechanics in his/her stroke, a paddler is able to maximize the percentage of the entire stroke spent pushing water backward with the blade going straight up and down in the water rather than on an angle like a straight shaft.
Paddlers with years of bent shaft paddle experience will often claim that bent paddles lessen strain or fatigue on shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
Mechanics of Paddling Bent Shaft vs. Straight Shaft (in Photos)
The key to the difference is that overall, through the entire length of the bent shaft stroke, you are pushing water as much as possible towards the stern of the canoe. A straight shaft spends slightly less time pushing water back, and more time pushing it up or down compared to a bent shaft.
When and Where Should I Use a Bent Shaft Paddle? (And is there a time to NOT use it?)
Bent shaft paddles are most often used in situations where paddlers are on longer journeys like a multi-day canoe trip, and maximum efficiency can make a difference over the long term.
They are also used by almost every canoe racer, though some racers who paddle from the stern seat still prefer straight shafts for their ease in applying corrective strokes. Still, the majority of racers (both bow and stern paddlers) use bent paddles.
As effective as bent shaft paddles are in maximizing efficiency in traveling from point A to point B on flat water, they are not good at all for whitewater.
Whitewater paddlers are not interested in maximizing forward thrust efficiency. They are merely concerned with navigating the river properly and guiding the canoe through obstacles efficiently.
To that end, most whitewater paddlers prefer the control offered by straight shaft paddles. A bent shaft is not easy to use to pry, draw or brace effectively and can serve to add to the confusion in an emergency situation where split-second actions are crucial.
In whitewater conditions, a paddle is often turned around so that during the course of the river descent, both blade faces are used. Bent shaft paddles do not allow for this because they are only meant to be paddled with one face of the blade.
Which Way Do You Hold a Bent Canoe Paddle? (How to use it properly)
The actual mechanics of how to use the bent paddle, are very similar to using a straight shaft. The important idea, however, is that in order to take advantage of the design ergonomics, the blade needs to be pointed or bent towards the bow of the canoe.
If you do not follow this procedure, then the entire point of the paddle having an ergonomic advantage is invalidated. The efficiency of the paddle will be less than that of a straight shaft.
When I paddle with a bent shaft, I am so keenly aware of the advantage I am getting (or at least seeking), that I tend to lean a bit forward at the start of the stroke (to get the paddle to vertical quicker) and then lean back slightly towards the end of the stroke (to lengthen the time spent in the “sweet zone” of pushing water straight back).
Check out the proper paddling technique for the bent shaft (10-second video);
Who Invented the Bent Shaft Canoe Paddle?
While it’s nearly impossible to confirm the actual origin of the bent shaft paddle, it’s safe to credit the idea to one of the best-known canoe racers in America – Eugene Jensen.
Jensen is a well-known canoe designer and racer from Minnesota, and he tells the story of how during a race in 1971, he watched the movements of a group of competitors racing beside him, and how their strokes showed levels of inefficiency. He had an “AHA” moment and the rest is history.
He designed a paddle with a mere 7° bend in it, and his general design became popular fairly quickly with lots of new designs with different angles becoming mainstream. He did not patent the design.
Because Jensen did not patent the design, lots of others claimed to have designed it themselves for various reasons including an accomplished paddle maker from New York named Brad Gillespie. He claimed he invented the design for the sake of his wife’s joint problems, and that the bent shaft alleviated those issues.
Clark Dean, from Connecticut, applied for a patent to design an “ergonomic” paddle with three bends in the shaft.
It’s really not easy to figure out who invented what, and that problem is only amplified by the fact that there is some evidence to suggest ocean paddlers in the South Pacific knew about AND USED bent shaft paddles long ago.
How Do You Size a Bent Shaft Paddle?
Sizing a bent shaft paddle is similar to how you would size a regular straight shaft paddle. The method used by many to size a regular paddle would be to sit on a hard, flat surface and place the paddle with the grip end on the hard surface between your legs.
The shoulders of the blade (the part where the blade meets the shaft) should be around your forehead.
However, with a bent shaft, the same technique would be used, but the shoulders of the blade should be between your eyes and nose rather than the forehead. Basically, a bent shaft can be a few inches shorter.
That said, the design of your canoe will also play a role in deciding what paddle length is best for you. If your canoe is wide and your seat is fairly high (ie. near gunwale height) you’ll need a longer paddle than if your canoe is narrow and/or your seat sits many inches below the gunwale height.
Is a Bent Shaft Paddle Worth it?
The cost of a good bent shaft paddle is not that much higher than a good straight shaft paddle, and in some cases, it’s less expensive than a straight shaft.
Because many bent shafts are in exactly the same price range as a straight shaft, they are definitely worth the price for any bow paddler, and even proficient stern paddlers traveling on flat water for racing or long-distance trips.
If you’re a whitewater paddler or a very casual afternoon recreational paddler, the generally higher price of a bent shaft paddle would likely make the choice of a bent shaft a poor one for you.
Bent shaft paddles have been around for many decades (and perhaps even hundreds of years) though no one is 100% sure of their origins.
A bent shaft paddle is an excellent choice for lake paddlers who want to maximize long-distance efficiency with a better ergonomic design for forward thrust. It’s also a virtual “must-have” for any serious lake water canoe racer.
Using a bent shaft paddle with virtually the exact same paddling mechanics in your arms and torso, you will spend more time (or percentage of the stroke duration) pushing water backward instead of up or down, compared to a straight shaft paddle.
If you’re paddling whitewater, a bent shaft paddle is a poor choice since you will gain no benefit from its design at all. A straight shaft with a short, wide blade is your best choice for rapid river navigation.