In this post I want to focus on ways to design a paddle so it orients itself in the proper direction for paddling without a lot of effort on the part of the paddler. A paddle that requires a tight grip to keep it in control will sap the energy of the paddler and cause fatigue and diminished efficiency.
Not surprisingly, there is more than one way to make paddle orientation easier to control. I will examine three different ways all of which can be used in various combinations. I should also mention that the intended use of the paddle, whether it is meant for racing, cruising, surfing or rolling will have an impact on how it should best be held.
Most traditional paddles have oval or egg shaped looms with the longer dimension of the oval perpendicular to the face of the paddle blade. The oval shape makes it easier to keep the loom from twisting in the hand than a loom with a circular cross section.
A second way to keep the loom from twisting in the hands of the paddler is to hold the paddle at least partly by the root of the blade where it joins the loom. For instance, in a shouldered Greenland paddle, the index finger and the thumb circle the loom while the other fingers and the rest of the palm circle the root of the paddle blade. The flat part of the blade resting against the flat of the palm gives the paddle stability and keeps it from rotating in the hands of the paddler.
I thought at one time that it was only the Greenland paddles that were held this way, but there are some photos of Unangan (Aleut paddlers) that also show them holding their paddles so that at least part of their hand is on the root of the blade and part on the loom.
A third way to stabilize a paddle is to design it so that the paddle blade naturally wants to orient itself in the right direction when the paddler pulls on the loom. This trick only works for paddles that are asymmetrical, that is paddles that have a front face that is different from the back face. When you pull this kind of paddle through the water at some random angle, it will have one face that will naturally orient itself in the direction of travel while the other face orients itself away from the direction of travel. It is like a wind vane which if put sideways into the wind will turn its head into the wind and its tail out of the wind. Examples of this kind of paddle are the Unangan (Aleut) paddle and bent shaft paddles in which the face of the blade slightly trails the loom as the paddle is being pulled through the water.
In these two closeups of Unangan paddlers from the same boat, both paddlers are holding the paddles with the flat face toward the back. The interesting thing with these paddles is that the weather vane effect would favor holding the paddles flat face toward the front but the shape of the paddle in the areas where paddlers held it also make the opposite orientation stable. The photo was no doubt posed and both paddlers are just holding the boat in position rather than paddling forward. They may actually be paddling backward. So it is hard to tell whether this is the way they held their paddles when moving along, but regardless of what was happening when the picture was taken, it seems that the shape of the loom allows the paddle to be held in a stable manner regardless of orientation.
This also brings us to the question why so many commercial paddles have looms with round cross sections while traditional paddles almost without exception have looms with oval cross sections. I suspect the reason is that is simply so much easier and cheaper to manufacture looms with round cross sections.