It's a common misconception among beginners that all SUP paddles work the same. But just like standup paddleboards, standup paddles are built differently for various conditions, and a paddle that works well with one discipline may not achieve the desired performance in another. Picking a SUP paddle that suits your needs is a science, and not necessarily a straightforward one. To help you choose the paddle (or paddles) that fit you best, let's break it down by discipline and design.
Flatwater Touring and Long-Distance Racing
For racing long distances or cruising flatwater it's important to have a paddle that is both powerful in the catch (the beginning of the stroke) and light enough to paddle casually with comfort. Carbon fiber shafts with smaller blades work well for this, as the carbon makeup tends to be the lightest and a smaller surface area on the blade helps maintain stamina at a consistent pace. A blade with sharper, squarer edges works well here as it allows for maximum resistance, i.e. more power, at a smaller blade size.
Length: Four to six inches overhead. Touring and distance paddling calls for long, steady strokes.
The goal with downwind paddling is to catch bumps, or rolling wind swell, which requires short, high-interval, sprint-style strokes. This paddling style demands a lot of torque and to get the most power out of your downwind paddle, you'll want to go with a bigger blade.
The key for stroking into downwind bumps is performing quick, powerful bursts, as opposed to the consistent rhythm you want for long-distance paddling. This means you can give your arms a break (and hopefully surf) between bursts. That break allows you to use a larger blade without burning up your arms. Even still, the lighter the paddle, the better as long as it's strong. And just like your distance paddle, a squarer blade shape will give you the most reward in the power phase of your stroke.
Length: Two to four inches overhead tends to be the sweet spot. A downwind paddle should be somewhere between your surf paddle and your distance paddle in length. Shorter, choppier strokes work best with a shorter shaft, but you'll want that added length for comfort if the bumps are few and far between.
Technical races involve a lot of sprinting and buoy turns that call for shorter, chopped strokes as opposed to the longer, more rhythmic stroke style of distance racing. A paddle that's light and fast off the line with maximum power in bursts works best to get you from buoy to buoy with speed. To accomplish this, look for a paddle with a stiffer shaft and a medium-sized blade that won't tire you out but also won't leave you underpowered.
The short-course format of technical races means stamina is less of an issue, so a midsize blade won't cause too much fatigue. But you also don't want to bog yourself down with a blade that's too big for your brawn. Because technical races often involve paddling in and out through surf, a blade with slightly rounded edges is ideal as it will give you the power you need without catching edges when you're surfing a wave.
Length: Two inches overhead. The happy medium for technical racing is a paddle long enough to thoroughly complete your distance-style stroke but short enough to power through sprints.
It's best to think of SUP surfing as paddle-enhanced surfing, meaning you're using your paddle to help power and guide turns on the wave face. Whether bracing through a bottom turn, sweeping through a top turn or being used as a pivot point, your paddle should always be in or on the water when surfing. A paddle with rounded edges works best when you're up and riding because it minimizes the risk of catching an edge and offsetting your maneuvers.
Meanwhile, catching waves requires shorter, chopped, sprint-style strokes that lend a lot of torque and a light shaft with a midsize blade work best for this. A blade that's too big will prolong the power phase of your stroke undesirably, and a paddle that's too heavy will make it more difficult to recover between the release and the catch. A good SUP surfing paddle should be powerful and quick in bursts (shorter, stiffer shaft with midsize blade), and also designed to maximize your speed and flow once you catch a wave (rounded blade edges).
Length: The rule-of-thumb for SUP surfing paddle length is to match your standing height. The main objective in paddling for surf is using rapid, sprint strokes, best accomplished with a shorter paddle. A shorter paddle also helps with maneuvering around the wave face when actually surfing.