When I first started kayaking at the tender age of 12, a split paddle was a back-up plan. You would find it stuffed alongside the stern airbags; stowed away in case of emergencies. An uglier, heavier alternative to your regular one-piece, it was a declaration to all around you that you had just snapped your primary paddle or, worse still, you lost it – what an idiot!
More recently, however, split paddles have gotten a makeover. Most popular brands now offer high-spec paddles in adjustable, collapsible designs. Such innovation allows us to capitalise on the advantages of splits without sacrificing on quality.
Largely speaking, there are two adjustment mechanisms; internal and external. Werner have been using their patented internal, spring-loaded mechanism for some years now. While avoiding any additional bulk on the surface of the shaft, this design requires regular maintenance to prevent grit and salt build-up inside the paddle which can cause the mechanism to malfunction. Other companies like Select, GPower and Adventure technology have adopted the external, collar-type adjustment mechanism. Simplicity is the main advantage here. It does add a small amount of bulk at the joint but requires virtually no maintenance.
About 12 months ago, I was considering an increase in paddle length so I swapped from a one-piece to an adjustable, split design. I have used it almost exclusively since then. It’s worth mentioning that my experience is limited to Select’s external collar design. Here’s my summary of the pros and cons:
1. Learn Your Preference
Do you like a 12.5 or a 15-degree feather? 192cm or 195cm length? There are innumerable variations and many paddlers swear by their own configuration. Personally, I believe it boils down to not much more than personal preference. An adjustable paddle means you can easily experiment with different setups. This can be especially valuable when you’re starting out as a junior. As you grow, the paddle can change with you. As you learn new disciplines, you can adjust your blades accordingly. Even if your preferences are well-established, with up to 10cm of length adjustment on some models, a split paddle may nicely cover all bases when paddling different styles or boats.
2. Ease of travel
I’ve done my fair share of flying with my kayak and there’s always that moment of low-key anxiety at the check-in desk, praying the airline rep won’t make an issue of my paddle bag strapped to my boat bag with lashings of tape. Is it one item of luggage? Is it two items of luggage? Thankfully, I have not yet had to get in to that discussion. Needless to say, a split paddle packed inside my boat would be much less conspicuous.
On the other end of the flight, there’s also the issue of rental cars. I have never liked the idea of strapping my carbon boat to the roof. So invariably, I end up spending 20 minutes in the car park playing Toyota Aygo Tetris with all my gear. Split paddles would certainly have made this easier.
3. Stress Breaker
Carbon fibre paddles carry many advantages. They’re light, rigid and pretty, but they can be somewhat brittle. Hit them off a rock enough times, and they can snap. Every impact introduces a stress to the paddle. In the case of a one-piece, this stress has nowhere to go but in to the paddle itself. Over time it accumulates in the material and can lead to its failure. In a split paddle, however, the adjustment mechanism can slip. This means the force from an impact can be diffused to some extent. I don’t think this is an intentional design feature, but I am convinced it reduces the damage done to the material itself from rock strikes.
1. Surprise Feather
While slippage of the adjustment mechanism may increase the resistance of the paddle to rock strikes, it means your left with a new feather and sometimes shorter shaft length whenever you find a surprise boulder with your blades. While this is easy to readjust, it is not ideal when you are in the middle of a freestyle ride or hitting the crux move on your local creek run.
2. Additional Weight
The luxury of being able to change the length and feather of your paddle, does come with some additional weight. One half of the paddle inserts into the other and this overlap accounts for the majority of the weight increase. The adjustment mechanism itself is commonly made from plastic and is relatively light-weight.
3. Screw scuffs
I imagine this would not be a problem with Werner’s internal mechanism. However, with the external designs, the adjustment screw protrudes from the plastic casing ever so slightly. I think this might become more pronounced over time as the casing becomes more flexible and the female portion of the two-piece shaft wears a bit from use. Ultimately, it can lead to a punctured spray-deck or some unsightly scrapes on your carbon boat. To be fair, this is an easy fix, but perhaps it’s worth considering if you’re on the fence about purchasing your first split paddle.
All in all, a split design offers some legitimate benefits, especially if you’re new to the sport, you like to paddle a variety of boats and styles or you’re young and still growing. While there are some noteworthy drawbacks, I reckon the vast majority of paddlers would manage just fine regardless. As with most bits of kayaking gear, the best choice depends on your personal situation. Hopefully this summary has illuminated some of the key issues to consider if you’re about to invest in some new blades and are on the fence about the reliability of split designs. I was certainly impressed with mine. They’re not the clunky, last resort they used to be.