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Paddle Vs Oar: What Is the Main Difference (Easy Explanation)

paddle vs oar

Hi friends. It’s your favorite rowing fanatic here, Petra.

Today, I want to spend a bit more time explaining the difference between oars and paddles.

While many people use these words interchangeably, they aren’t the same thing. OK, let me clarify that one. They aren’t exactly the same thing to people who row or use kayaks.

I mean, if my baker can be upset because I called his scone a muffin, then people should start calling an oar an oar and a paddle a paddle, right?

If you’re new to rowing or even to kayaking or canoeing, you’ll want to sound knowledgeable and not like a newbie, and this is a great place to start.

Paddle vs Oar coming right up!

Are Paddles and Oars the Same?

If you’ve ever heard a person who is new to rowing talk about how they were “paddling across the lake”, you probably gritted your teeth and thought about fingernails on a chalkboard!

Let’s talk about the nouns paddle and oar, so we can get these things straightened out.

What Constitutes a Paddle?

Colorful paddles for kayaks

We aren’t talking about table tennis but rather the type of paddle that people use on a canoe or a kayak.

Single-bladed paddles are what most people use on canoes or even rafts. You sometimes see paddles as part of an emergency kit in lifeboats or blow-up rafts.

Paddles have a “stick” which is the part that you grip and a “blade” that you put in the water.

A double-bladed paddle has a blade on each end of the stick (or handle) so you can use it from side to side, such as what you see with most kayaks.

Paddles are not attached to the boat in any manner. These tools are left free so that they can be used or simply stored if not required.

What Constitutes an Oar?

Group of rowers holding their oars

Oars always have a single, flat blade attached to rowing boats so they don’t fall off.

The handle of an oar is much longer than that of a paddle and firmly affixed to the row boat with oarlocks.

In sweep rowing, a rower uses one oar with both hands. In sculling, a rower has two oars, holding one oar in each hand.

You can easily distinguish the difference between oars and paddles by looking at them. Are they attached to the boat? Then it’s an oar. Is this tool lying across the kayak or lying inside the canoe? Then it’s a paddle.

What Are Kayak Paddles Called?

This is a simple one. The paddle on a kayak is called a paddle.

a man paddling alone in his kayak

Even on stand-up paddleboards, you call what you use to propel yourself through the water a paddle.

The overwhelming majority of kayak paddles have a double blade, but this doesn’t mean that you will never see a single blade in a kayak. It’s really just a matter of preference.

What Other Types of Vessels Use Paddles?

You can find single-blade or double-bladed paddles in many other vessels, including:

  • Rafts
  • Lifeboats
  • Canoes
  • Stand-up paddleboards
  • Homemade watercraft, such as wooden rafts or very small boats

I’ve seen a very small boat with an outboard motor keep a paddle in the boat for emergencies (such as running out of gas or engine trouble). I’ve even seen an emergency set of paddles on a homemade fishing raft some teenagers made.

You can add a paddle to just about anything you plan on putting on the water!

What Is the Main Difference Between an Oar and a Paddle?

One difference is that an oar must be attached to the boat, either via an oarlock or a pin. If you should let go of an oar, it’s not a problem. It’s secured to the boat and it won’t go anywhere.

Oars have long handles and only one blade, while paddles have shorter handles with either a single blade or double blades.

Oars On A Dock

A paddle is free-standing or loose, if you will. Unless you’ve secured the paddle using a paddle leash, once you drop it, the paddle will fall into the water. If you’re lucky, it floats!

Another difference is that you may have only one paddle in your boat, but if you have an oar, you’ll need two, otherwise you’ll just spin in circles!

In sculling, a rower will always have two oars. Even in sweep rowing, where a rower will hold only one oar, there will always be an even number of rowers so that there are at least two oars in the boat.

What Is the Difference Between Rowing and Paddling?

One of the differences between rowing and paddling is the direction of travel.

With a kayak, for example, you use the kayak paddle from side to side, this paddling technique is designed to propel the boat forward. You sit in the kayak and use a forward stroke. That is to say that the blade goes into the water in front of you, and you push it backward. The paddle moves from the front to the back and the kayak goes forward.

When speaking of rowing, the rowing stroke goes in the opposite direction. Unlike paddling, rowing involves placing the oar in the water behind you, pulling with a backward motion, and pushing the boat backward.

With canoes and kayaks, the people paddling can see what is coming in front of them.

This isn’t the case with rowing boats, which is why many larger boats use a coxswain to guide them.

Do Kayaks and Canoes Use the Same Types of Paddles?

They could, and I’m sure that some people do. However, canoes often have their own special type of paddle.

When speaking of canoes, you will hear about three types of paddles:

  1. Beavertail. This paddle is widest at the bottom of the blade, near the tip.
  2. Ottertail. This type of paddle is wider at the top, near the shaft.
  3. Square tip. This type of paddle is rarely seen anymore since most have evolved into one of the two types above. You might see old-fashioned, very experienced paddlers using their great grandfathers’ square tip paddle, but this design has fallen out of favor.

No matter which type of canoe paddle you choose, they all have rounded tips (the very end of the paddle, on the opposite end of where you place your hand). Rounded tips make the paddle quieter and more sturdy.

The Top 6 Differences Between a Paddle and an Oar

Top 6 Differences Between a Paddle and an Oar

The basics tell you that both a paddle and an oar are used to move small watercraft across a body of water, but there is so much more to it than that!

  1. The Type of Watercraft Determines the Tool. You wouldn’t run a marathon in your house slippers, so it makes sense that you wouldn’t put a canoe paddle in a rowing boat.
  2. The Design of the Paddle Makes the Difference. Some people prefer a single-bladed paddle, while others go for the double-blade type. It doesn’t really matter since both will get you where you want to go, but if you are paddling or kayaking alone, you’ll want to use the type of paddle that is easiest for you to use.
  3. The Construction and Material. Paddles are often made from lightweight materials, such as fiberglass, aluminum, or carbon fiber. I’ve seen old-fashioned wood paddles, but not very often, possibly due to their weight. Oars, on the other hand, are frequently made from hardwoods, such as ash, unless you’re racing. Racing oars are commonly made from carbon fiber because they are light yet extremely durable.
  4. The Stroke Technique. Rowing requires two oars to prevent the boat from turning in a circle. This means a one-person sculling boat will have two oars. If you’re talking about sweep rowing, you’ll need a minimum of two rowers, one holding an oar on one side of the boat and another holding one oar to row on the other side of the boat. Paddling has none of these issues. A single-blade paddle is used to push from side to side, and a double blade takes turns putting each blade in the water, alternating sides.
  5. The Speed. Rowing is much faster than kayaking or canoeing, but rowers can only see where they’ve been and not where they’re going (learn more on how do rowers see where they are going ).
  6. Cost. Oars are more expensive than paddles, and you’ll need two of them to row.

Competitive rowing or recreational paddling—it’s all a matter of which one resonates to you!

Which Is More Difficult? Paddling or Rowing?

Rowing, by far, makes you use more muscle and requires more power. Paddling, on the other hand, is not as easy as it looks, unless you are literally sightseeing and have no particular destination.

Men's 8 training at a morning workout with their coxswain

Rowing requires that you use your leg muscles. While some people may think that rowing is a sport mainly involving the upper body, the fact is that 60 percent of your exertion comes from your leg muscles!

In comparison, paddling requires tremendous upper body strength and flexibility of the torso. Even with a double-bladed paddle, you’ll still be twisting at the waist and hips back and forth to maneuver your kayak.

The Bottom Line

By now, you’re an old hand with this terminology, and you won’t be “paddling” your rowboat across any lake or putting your oars in your kayak!

I hope my oar vs paddle comparison has made these two confusing words easier to distinguish and understand.

Whether you use paddles or oars, whether it’s a kayak or rowboat you prefer, nothing compares to being out on the water in complete control of your boat!

Live healthy and enjoy rowing, kayaking, or canoeing, friends!