Some years ago, in my capacity as new coach of a large club team, I was conducting a paddle inventory. Initially, the goal was just to determine how many paddles at each length we needed. We would need paddles for kids, teens and adults. However, when sorting the paddles, I was surprised to see the variety of paddle 'twist'. The paddles had been collected over many years and assembled by many different people so it made sense they would not all be the same. What I did not expect was to find paddles set anywhere between 0 degrees and 90 degrees. Most were between 0 and 12 degrees (basically nothing at all).
What is Twist?
Some people will refer to twist as 'feathering'. I just keep it simple with twist or twist angle. The below image of the NZ Women K4 shows the blade in the water is square with the side of the boat while we see the leading edge of the blade in the air. If there is no twist we see the front face in the air, parallel to the blade in the water.
Twist angle, it does make a difference!
It is not simply what feels best, like everything else about selecting and setting up your paddle, twist impacts your stroke and how easily you can achieve your best mechanics. It was clear I needed to correct the twist, and that would mean taking the blade off the shaft and re-gluing it with a more appropriate angle.
Since these paddles were for many people with many abilities, I needed to determine what angle to set the twist. So, I did what anyone would do, ask the experts. I spoke with all the national team coaches I could reach and contacted paddle makers who service top athletes. Although I expected to get some differing opinions, after speaking to those that operate at the top-level and service top international athletes, the answers were remarkably consistent.
Answer: 60 degrees minimum & 85 degrees maximum.
Notice that although some of our advanced paddlers may insist 15 degrees is best, most top paddles are not set with angle markers below 50 degrees. This is in itself a good hint of the target range. Surfski paddlers may be select the lower end of this range while sprint racers are in the mid to high range.
Making sense of it
New and un-balanced paddlers tend to be arm dominated with very little hip and torso movement. Also, the paddle tends to stay close to the water. For a paddler who sits still in the seat of the kayak and mostly faces forward, the paddle angle should be low. For a beginner, a near zero-twist paddle lets the blades enter the water squarely. So, if this is your desired style, a zero-twist paddle will help make it easy.
Here is an image of a break-apart paddle connection made for novice and casual touring paddlers. For the casual fitness or touring paddler, racing techniques are not required so lower twist angle is expected. See in the image, angle markers are provided between 0 and 60 degrees.
Racing paddlers don't sit still in the seat. Advanced paddlers perform tremendous body rotation, movement on the seat and little swing from the shoulders and arms. Rather than facing forward, they rotate aggressively, driving the stroke from the legs; they exit the water higher and closer to the body. The paddle enters the water close to the boat and under the paddler's weight. With this rotation-based style of stroke, the angle must be greater, so the paddle blade enters the water squarely.
Paddlers naturally will adjust their movement, so the paddle blade enters the water square, or else they risk falling in or at least a messy stroke. Setting twist angle should be done to promote rotation. However, we must be careful not to over-do-it and assume a beginner should go directly to a high twist paddle; after all, there is that little thing called balance to contend.
Progressing from a low-twist style (arm dominated - swinging) to a high-twist style (hip dominated - rotation) requires comfort to be able to move in the seat, and this means better balance. Balance develops with practice as the paddler challenges him or herself over months and years. However, I suggest you keep in mind the kind of boat you are in as well. If you are in the most tippy boat, you may be unlikely to do much more than move your arms. A more stable boat that matches your balance will help your ability to take a more rotation-based stroke.
OK, I won't get side-tracked on the importance of matching the 'right boat for the paddler', here is what I determined and what I did with the paddles.
What I did, what I do
I set all paddles at 60 degrees to encourage more rotation but not beyond the beginners' capacity. For those with private paddles, I measured the twist to matched their ability. Break apart shafts made twist modifications more manageable. However, we did find many paddlers had not assembled the blades correctly, and the markings did not match the true twist.
TIP: When assembling paddles with adjustable shafts and angle markings, set the paddle with zero-twist and ensure the 0-marker is in line; when the zero-angle is correct everything else should be too. I have seen coaches, without a paddle angle jig, hold the paddle against a wall so that the edge of both blades presses against the wall the same. This makes a good zero-twist approximation.
After becoming more aware of the twist and making adjustments over time, I found many of my paddlers seemed to settle in the 72-80 degree range and not need to progress past this to achieve their best stroke. Like everything in sports, equipment and movement style must be individualized. Finding the angle that not only allows but promotes the desired style takes some experimentation. I hope what I have said here provides a starting place for the process.
Mike Robinson - Chartered Professional Coach