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Sizing a Dragon Boat Paddle

January 11, 2011

Kialoa recently asked me to share my thoughts on sizing dragon boat paddles.  It’s also a question I get a lot with the team I paddle and coach for so I decided I would share my thoughts.

There are resources you can find online that can give you an approximation of what size paddle you should use.  Notice I used the word “approximation”.  There are a few methods that can get you in the ball park of your correct paddle length.

The first method is the sit test.  You sit on a flat surface such as a dragon boat bench.  Place the tip of the paddle on the bench next to your hip with the paddle handle facing upwards.  You should be able to extend your hand upwards and comfortably hold the paddle handle.  The length of the paddle that will allow you to do this is a paddle length that is on the short side for you.

The next test is done standing.  Take the paddle and place the tip of the paddle on the ground to your side with the paddle handle extending under your arm pit.  You should be able to fit 3 to 4 fingers between the paddle handle and your armpit.  This will give you a length that is on the long side.

Both of these methods have flaws (especially if your appendages aren’t of average size) but will give you ballpark numbers.   There are other tests, some involve fully loading a dragon boat with paddlers and others include referencing a chart that will give you a paddle length based on your height.

Once you have figured out the range of paddle length, there are other factors you should consider.

What type of technique does your team use?  An upright stroke may mean you might want a longer paddle.  If your team has lots of downward body movement, you may want a shorter paddle.

Where do you sit in the boat?  If you sit up front, you might want to go with a longer paddle – but keep in mind, if your crew is fast,  you also have to deal with the boat’s bow wake.  A longer paddle will make it a bit more difficult to deal with the bow wake.  If you sit in the middle or the back of the boat, you aren’t as far away to the water as someone in the timing box.  Paddlers in the back of the boat have to deal with dirty water so paddle control becomes paramount.

What type of boat do you paddle in?  Some boats sit higher or lower in the water than others.  Depending on the type of boat you train/race in, you may want a longer or shorter paddle.  Paddling in salt or fresh water will also affect the height of the boat in the water.

Do you have any shoulder or any physical issues/limitations?  Depending on the type of issue/limitation, you might want to go with a shorter paddle as this will help with the exit and recovery phases of the stroke.

Are your arms short or long?  This has an effect on your paddle length.  For instance, I have short arms (and short legs, hell, I’m short) so I try to compensate for this by adding a bit of length to my paddle.

If all is fails, go by what feels right.  Ask your teammates to try out their paddles.  Try paddles you think are too long or too short.  Try them all until you find a length you are comfortable with.  One caveat to using this method – make sure you are sitting in your customary race seat (if you have one).  A paddle that you are comfortable paddling with does more for your race psyche than racing with a paddle just because it fits comfortably under your armpit.

If you are still unsure about what size is right for you, there are two things I recommend.

First, ask your coach.  Assuming she or he is familiar with your paddling skill, physical/health limitations, and has ample knowledge of dragon boat paddling technique, your coach should be able to recommend a paddle size for you.  Or, if you don’t want to get your coach involved, I would recommend you buy a paddle on the longer side.  Why?  Three reason – first, you can usually shorten a long paddle (the reverse is not true).  Second, longer paddles are usually in higher demand (well, at least on my team) so it will be easier to sell a longer paddle than a shorter one (see all the 46″ paddles that have been donated to LARD).  Finally, a longer paddle will give you a bit more leverage – assuming it’s not way too big for you.

As a point of reference for you in your quest to find the perfect paddle size, I’m 5’8″ (when my hair is at full glory), my arms are on the shorter side, and I usually race in bench 10.  We practice in Champion dragon boats and race in BuK, 6×16, or the POS Geminis (sorry, had to bestow the Geminis with the “POS” tag, I couldn’t resist).  The last few years I have been practicing and racing with a 48″ paddle.  I added an extra inch and ended the 2010 season racing with a 49″.

There it is, the “science” of dragon boat paddle sizing – at least, my thoughts on it.

Above: My beloved 49 with the booty.

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