by Nigel Foster
Wings are a type of paddle blade long used by racing paddlers but little known to tourers. They were first designed by Stefan Lindeberg of Sweden. Unquestionably, they are a most innovative paddle-blade design. They have become widely used in sprint races and for downriver racing, and can improve a paddler's time over a set distance. Top racers may gain up to one and a half seconds over five hundred meters. So if they are more efficient for forward paddling, does this make them a good choice for general touring? Are they the paddle of the future for seakayakers?
How wing blades work: imagine an aircraft wing
The wing of an aircraft is fairly flat underneath and arched upward on top. As the aircraft moves forward, the air that flows over the top of the wing travels longer distance than the air beneath the wing. This creates lower pressure above the wing than below it, generating lift. Stand a paddle blade on end in the water beside your kayak. Imagine it shaped like an aircraft wing stood on end, wing-tip toward the sea bed. The leading edge of the wing is the edge away from the kayak, and teh top of the wing - the non-power face of the blade - faces forward. Now drive the blade sideways from the kayak. The water flow across the blade creates lift, pulling the blade forward as it moves away from the side of the kayak. Paddle with a conventional blade, you plant the blade in the water beside the kayak and pull back on it, dragging the kayak past it. The blade doesn't move far, but it doesslip back a little. With a wing, as you pull back on teh blade you also drive it away from the side of the kayak. The "lift" on the blade should make it rip better and even make it move forward a little. You can pull lnger against the paddle with each stroke, and the blade feels more secure in the water.
The blade has to be held upright in the water for it to work, so your top hand must be high or the blade won't function as a wing. You do not have the option of adopting a low paddle action.
The designer, Stefan Lindeberg
Before I tried paddling with wings, I talked with Stefan Lindeberg, the designer of the wing blade, at the Swedish National Racing Championships on the east coast of Sweden. Every one of the hundreds of competitors at the event was using wing paddles. Lindeberg said he had been working in the late 1970s and early 1980s with Swedish racing competitors on the lead-up to the Olympic games. The Swedish team wanted to make use of every legal advantage they could think of, and were concentrating their efforts on boat design, training techniques and paddle design. On the water, the athletes showed a tendency to start each paddle stroke with the blade close to the kayak, moving itaway from the kayak as the blade approached their hips. The paddlers felt conmfortable with this technique, which made good use of their back muscles. But the team coaches thought that blade efficiency would be reduced and encouraged the athletes to keep their paddleclose to the side of the kayak throughout the forward stroke. When Lindeber watched the Olympic swimmers training, he noted that they pulled not straight back with their hands, but in a waving motion. It seemed that they were constantly seeking "still" water for their hands.This gave them a betetr purchase on the water and better results. He thought the paddlers were also getting a better grip on the water by moving their blades out from the kayak. Lindeberg wondered if it would be possible to design a blade that would take advantage of this movement. He considered shaping the blade like a wing. The outward movement would surely create lift toward the bow of the boat. This might satisfy the coaches' search for efficiency and take advantage of the athletes' natural stroke. He began work on som designs and some prototypes.
Prototype wing paddles indicated that there might be a benefit of up to four percent. Laboratory tests also indicated they were onto a good thing. Test paddles were used by athletes and teh levels of lactic acid building up in paddlers using wing paddles was measured. Thge result was positive: greater speed couold be maintained for less effort. The wing paddle was more efficient than the standard paddle blade. In races the wing gave results that were up to three percent faster than before. Race-winning benefits!
The original wing paddle was a solid wing like that of an aircraft, but it was awkward to build and heavier than Lindeberg wanted. Then more tests revealed that if the power side of the blade were removed to leave a concave surface instead of the flat surface, the water that filled tha gap rested there without moving, acting through the stroke as though the blade had a power face as before. This discovery meant that blades could be made more cheaply and easily with just one skin instead of two. For racing where every paddle stroke was a forward one, the wing had obvious advantage. Paddlers soon mastered the new blades and developed the paddling style required to handle them. For sprint competition, no paddler could afford to ignore the new development. Ten top whitewater racing competitors began trying wings on downriver courses. I recall asking Melvin Swallow, a prominent Britisch competitor, about wings some six or seven years ago. He said he preferred them for the speed he could get from them . So, if they are usable on whitewater racing courses, doesn't it follow that they work for sea kayaking? Not necessarily. Even whitewater racing requires only forward strokes. If all is going well, the paddler is never braodside to the water flow, and never paddling upstream with the waves following. In sea kayaking this is not so.
What of seapaddlers who have used wings?
I spoke with some paddlers who had used them on the sea. Irish paddling guru Ray Rowe said it took him six weeks of using wings on his racing kayak before he consuistently achieved a paddle action high enough. But he could easily tell whether the blade was gripping or slipping. Rowe said that when he used them on the sea, he experienced a few problems. He found straightline paddling okay, but when he sliced the blade in the direction of either the leading or the trailing edge, the blade became unstable, sometimes diving beneath the hull. Many of his automatic adjustments to direction, especially on waves, involved a degree of blade slicing when "blending" strikes, such as when moving from a forward paddle stroke into a stern rudder, or from a bow draw into a forward stroke. These subtle movements tripped him up and jeopardized his balance.
Row also found the blade gave less support for recovery strokes and, once submerged, was less predictable in its movement. He took his wing out into a local overfall to try it in rough water. Using teh bade to make a sharp turn, the blade dove under his kayak, capsizing him abruptly. Despite being an impeccable roller with most types of blades, he swam. He as alone at the time and had to self-rescue. His usual method of self-rescue is the reentry and roll. He commented, dryly, that a paddle float fits well over a wing blade.
About wings in general, rowe said, "For racing youu want pure efficiency. For general sea paddling you want nothing to go wrong.'Keep it simple' is the bottom line. You don't want uncertainty on the sea in rough water." He uses asymmetric blades for sea touring.
I had similar feedback from Kevin Mansell from the Channel Islands off the north coast of France. He trained for teh Devizes-to-Westminster kayak marathon (125 mile, across-England race) using wings, and he trained on the sea because the sea was the only water nearby on which he could train. Mansell found his wings unpredictable when he trailed a blade to make minor corrections of direction. He declared that there was little actual advantage to using wings unless the water was reasonable calm. He only tried rolling on one side of teh kayak, but used the back of the blade. Mansell claimed it worked akay like that.
Having mulled over the findings of Rowe and Mansell, and a few others who had tried wings, I took two designs of wing paddle out on the sea in various conditions over a period of time to see what I could make of them.
My initial impression was that the paddle action felt very natural. The grip of the blade to the water was superb, certainly better than the broad asymmetrical blades I usually use. A high paddle action was certainly necessary for forward paddling. For stern corrections or steering, I found I needed to lower the paddle into a stern rudder position rather than attempt a stern draw. A stern draw invariable resulted in the paddle spinning out of control beneath the stern, laving me barely upright. A bow rudder (Duffek) worked well for steering, although I felt that steering and fine control in wind were not as good with the wing. The bent-shaft (blade angles forward from the end of the shaft) model I tried caused one blade to angle up higher into the air than the other, making it catch the wind significantly more when the wind comes from the paddle-control side than from the non-control side. When the blade on the non-control side is raised during forward paddling, the blade angles down; when the control-side blade is in the air, it angles upward.
When trying a high brace for recovery,I found both types of blades tended to roll onto their back in the water because of teh extreme spoon shape. Sculling forward or backward at all was very unstable, so the high brace was unreliable if the kayak was moving at all. The low brace, on the other hand, offered betetr blade stability, but with the bent-shaft example, the tip of the blade sloped down into the water even when the paddle shaft was held horizontally. This was not an ideal angle for the blade in the water for bracing. To make the best use of wings, I would have needed to reprogram my now-instictive responses on the water to keep the blade out of unstable positions.
On longer journeys, I found wings very tiring because I could not vary my paddle style at all to rest muscles, even for a few minutes. Former Swedish kayak racer Mikael Rosin, who now runs a kayaking center in the eastern Swedish archipelago, sais he thought that wngs were bad for the shoulders if used for extended journeys. He found they had too much immediate grip. He thought a little give or slip is kinder to the body. The limited variation of stroke dictated by the blade is certainly hard on the shouldes over a long period. I found it a relief to return to my old asymmetric blades after a few hard days of paddling.
Rolling was possible, but only if I concentrated on avoiding certain paddle movements that were advantageous with a standard blade. My C-to-C roll did not work well, and my blade dove if i finished my screw roll with a forward scull, which I do routinely to aid stability. In theory, the blade should plane to the surface if a screw roll is begun beneath the water. In practice, it curled and dove rather easily when I relaxed with the roll. I found I had to grip the shaft tightly. Because teh paddle shaft is round, the lack of a shaped handgrip made it harder to indentify the blade position, so again, it was necessary to grip the shaft more tightly than Ilike. I sometimes failed. The wing is certainly not a good shape for rolling versatility.
Having paddled with wings to test them out, I found some real disadvantages that I could not get around such as the blade instability with any sort of stern draw, with any high brace with a forward sweep, or with any sculling action. If I relaxed in following seas and paddled normally, I allways ended up startling myself. Then I got to thinking about the evolution Lindberg had described to me. The original wings were a solid blade construction, not scooped out like the modern ones. Out of curiosity, I bought some polyethylene foam, carved it to fit into the spoons and taped the foam in place. Suddenly the blades were a lot more predictable. I could scull, although I had to concentrate a litle on maintaining a good blade angle. I could roll much more easily, and I began to relax much more when I discovered I could attempt a stern draw in a breeze without the blade diving beneath my stern. With the crude foam-and-tape filling, I could feel the drag as I dropped the blade into the water, and was aware of the different flotation, but the blade certainly performed better for my purposes as a sea paddle.
So wings have some drawbacks for sea kayaking. Wings are fine for certain types of paddling in certain conditions. For fast, calm-water topuring, or when using a narrow sea kayak for working outm they'regreat, especially if the kayak is fitted with a rudder to preclude the need foor steering strokes. For use in waves and with following seas, when bracing is often required, I don't think they are suitable. If i were to use them on any "real" sea journey, I would probably use take-apart wings and carry take-apart standard paddles so that I could switch whenever I felt it necessary. In prqctice, I would most likely leave my wings behind altogether. In their present form, their use is limited. But I can foresee a time when the evolution of wings will roduce a lightweight wing blade that will have the increased efficiency without the quirky behavior. Then I'll be ready to give them another serious try.

Nigel Foster is a Britisch Canoe Union coach.
june 1996 - Seakayaker