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How to Deal with Slippery Hands When Paddling

I’ve had a few paddlers recently ask me what they can do about sweaty hands slipping on their paddle shaft during hot summer paddles. There’re a few things you can try that I’ll summarize here, but this question always reminds me of a favorite story about my childhood paddling hero, 1976 Olympic Silver Medalist, John Wood.

John was the first Canadian canoeist in a couple of generations to break onto the Olympic podium when he won his silver medal in the C1 500m at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. I had just started paddling C1 so he immediately became my hero. In fact, I can still remember watching his race on TV with my parents in our living room and turning to them as he celebrated his medal and saying “that’s what I want to do”. Later he became a good friend, and was always willing to provide sage advice as I was trying to win my own Olympic medal.

I remember one of the things he told me was to always have a piece of wet sandpaper in my boat. He explained that you always want to make sure the shaft of your paddle isn’t slippery when you’re about to race, and that sometimes there’s stuff in the water like oil or gasoline that, if they get on the shaft of the paddle are going to make it hard to hold on to.

I’ve had my bottom hand slip on the paddle as I load at the catch in training and, since my catch is usually pretty heavily loaded, suddenly the paddle that I expect to support my body weight isn’t where it’s supposed to be. The result, predictably, is a face plant into the water. If this happens in training it’s embarrassing and inconvenient. If it happens in a race it’s a disaster. Fortunately, it never happened to me in a canoe race because I always had that little piece of wet sandpaper tucked under my kneeling block. Before every race I’d just give the paddle shaft a quick sand and would be ready to go, confident that my hand wasn’t going to slip.

It was only after John died that I heard a cool story about his 1976 silver medal-winning race. A couple of minutes before the start he and the eight other finalists were circling nervously above the start line waiting for the call to the starting blocks. John noticed one of the other competitors struggling with his grip on a very obviously slippery paddle. Just before they got into the starting blocks, John offered him his piece of wet sandpaper which the competitor took with thanks, and used to get rid of whatever was making his paddle shaft slippery. The race started and John had the race of his life, winning his silver and narrowly missing the gold. When he looked across to see who had edged him at the finish he saw Alexander Rogov of the Soviet Union, the same paddler he had offered his wet sandpaper to. I find his sportsmanship as inspiring as his medal.

In SUP paddling, we’re just as likely to find the shaft of our paddle covered in something that makes it slippery as we are in canoe. We’ve got it a little easier than Olympic canoeists because if we’re racing on the ocean the sand on the beach is never far away. A handful of beach sand does a great job of taking anything off your paddle shaft that might make it slippery. You can use it to get anything (like sunscreen for example) off your hands as well. But since our board shorts all have pockets, why not carry a small piece (say 3”x3”) of 400 grit wet sandpaper? You’ll be covered if you don’t have time to get back to the beach to get some sand, and if you’re racing in a location with no beach sand you’ll be ready as well.

Grips, wraps and wax

Some paddlers I know put things on their paddle shafts to ensure a good grip. This can range from wraps, similar to what you see on the grips of tennis racquets, to wax like surfers use on their boards.

While both will help make your paddle shaft less slippery and provide you with a better grip, I find that wraps eventually unwrap or shift on the shaft, getting messy and ultimately needing replacing. Athletic tape on the shaft, another method I’ve seen used to improve the grip, gets messy in heat and super sticky. Leave your paddle in the sun for ten minutes and it becomes a sticky, gooey mess as soon as you start to paddle. Wax is just plain messy right from the start.

In my opinion, there’s something to be said for a clean paddle shaft. Smooth isn’t necessarily good, but the carbon texture without any gunk on it feels better in my hands than anything else. Wet sandpaper or beach sand can get anything slippery off it before you paddle.

Keep your sweat off the shaft

If you’ve got a problem with hands slipping on the paddle shaft, a much better idea than putting something on the shaft to enhance grip is keeping the shaft clean in the first place.

Obviously, it’s a good idea to be careful with your sunscreen. Don’t let your paddle shaft touch the parts of your body you’ve covered in sunscreen while you’re paddling. If you’ve got a problem with sweat running down your arm and onto your hands, making them slippery on the paddle shaft, wear wrist bands to stop the sweat from getting to your hands. If it works for tennis players it should work for you as you paddle as well.

Choose a paddle with a textured shaft

Paddles with glossy, smooth shafts are obviously more likely to get slippery than those with some texture. I’d always choose the paddle with a little texture. If you have a problem with your hands slipping on your paddle you should definitely opt for a textured shaft.

Ultimately, whatever strategy you use to prevent your hand from slipping on the paddle shaft, it has to not only work but feel good in your hands. Good paddling involves making the paddle an extension of your hands so you can “feel” the water loading up and held on your paddle blade. Your feel for the water is affected by how the paddle feels in your hands. Take some time to test out some different options for preventing your hands from slipping before settling on one that you’re going to use in an important race. Your paddle is arguably your most important piece of equipment. Everything to do with it is something you should take seriously.

Happy paddling.


1 Comment

  • Andrew Reyniak
    Posted September 20, 2023 at 8:57 pm

    Thanks for another great article, Larry. Of course, the most inspiring part of it is the sportsmanship story; but the general concept of maintaining paddle shaft hygiene is of critical importance. I have learned by experience to be careful about sunscreen — to apply it long in advance and make sure to wash my hands with an aggressive soap to get anything off my hands before getting out on the water. Where I live, as the summer progresses, I also have to add insect repellent to deal with horseflies, and that’s another slippery substance you have to watch out for. It’s really important to avoid touching any part of your protected skin while out there paddling to avoid transferring something slippery onto the paddle shaft.
    While you mention the bottom hand as the critical component, I will add the odd story of my worst case paddle slippage. It happened during the winter when I was paddling with gloves on and during the pull my top hand slipped off the handle and the paddle smashed me directly in the forehead. I was able to recover and regroup during that one, but it did make me think of the possibility that one could knock oneself out/off the board in such an event. So even in the winter with gloves on, we need to pay the attention to clean grip surfaces.

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