About Canoeing and Kayaking


Canoeing is an outdoor activity that involves a special kind of canoe. Open canoes may be ‘poled’ (punted), sailed, ‘lined and tracked’ (using ropes) or even ‘gunnel-pumped’.

Some canoes are called kayaks. When exactly a canoe can be called a kayak is difficult to determine though. Internationally, the term canoeing is used as a generic term for both forms, though the terms “paddle sports” or “canoe/kayak” are also used. In North America, however, ‘canoeing’ usually refers only to canoes, as opposed to both canoes and kayaks. Paddling a kayak is also referred to as ‘kayaking’. In modern canoe sport, canoes and kayaks are classified together, although these water-craft have different designs, and historical uses.

Both canoes and kayaks may be closed-decked. Other than by the minimum competition specifications (typically length and width (beam) and seating arrangement, it is difficult to differentiate most competition canoes from the equivalent competition kayaks. The most common difference is that competition kayaks are always seated and paddled with a double-bladed paddle, and competition canoes are generally kneeled and paddled with a single-bladed paddle. Exceptions include the canoe marathon (in both European and American competitive forms) and sprint (in the high kneeling position).

The most traditional and early canoes did not have seats, and the paddlers merely knelt on the bottom of the boat. Recreational canoes and kayaks employ seats and white-water rodeo and surf variants increasingly employ the use of ‘saddles’ to give greater boat control under extreme conditions.

The Origins of Canoeing

The actual word we know today as “canoe” originated from the word meaning “dugout”. Another story is that the word canoe comes from the word “canoa”, which is said to originally come from the native people in the Caribbean via Columbus to Europe. These dugout canoes, essentially large tree trunks that were shaped and hollowed, were used by the Caribbean natives to travel between islands.

Canoeing began to meet the simple needs of transportation across and along waterways. Canoeing was the primary mode of long-distance transportation at one time throughout much of North America, the Amazon Basin, and Polynesia, among other locations. As a method of transportation, canoes have generally been replaced by motorised boats, aeroplanes, rail-roads and roads with increasing industrialisation – although they still remain popular as recreational or sporting water-craft.

The origin of canoeing as a recreation and sport is often attributed to Scottish explorer John MacGregor (1825–1892), who was introduced to canoes on a camping trip in Canada and the USA in 1858. On his return to the United Kingdom, he constructed his own canoes and used them on waterways in various parts of Britain, Europe and the Middle East. He wrote a popular book about his experiences; “A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe” and founded the Royal Canoe Club in 1866. The first canoeing competition, the Paddling Challenge Cup, was held by the club in 1874.

In 1924, canoeing associations from Austria, Germany, Denmark and Sweden founded the International en Representation for Kanusport (IRK), forerunner of the International Canoe Federation. Canoeing became an Olympic sport in Berlin in 1936.

Canoeing as a Sport

The International Canoe Federation is the world wide canoeing organisation which creates the standard rules for the different disciplines of canoe/kayak competition. The ICF recognises several competitive and non-competitive disciplines of canoeing, of which Sprint and Slalom are the only two competing in the Olympic games. The United States Canoe Association is widely considered the American authority in sport and recreational canoeing, and recognises many ICF classes. Other national competition rules are usually based on the rules of the ICF.

Sprint races are over 200m, 500m, 1000m, and “long distance racing” such as 2 km or 6 km. Slalom competitors are timed in completing a descent down the rapids of a white-water course, in the process steering their canoes or kayaks through “gates” (a pair of suspended poles about 1m apart), including going up against the flow, across the flow, and surfing the standing waves of the rapids. Again, there are both kayak and canoe classes:
Kayak; K-1: single kayak
Canoe; C-1: solo canoe
C-2: tandem canoe

Marathon – Longer distance races over mostly flat-water courses, possibly including one or more portages. Course lengths typically vary from a few miles to the epic 125-mile (201 km) Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Marathon on the Thames, the 120-mile (190 km) overnight Au Sable River Canoe Marathon in Michigan, and the 260-mile (420 km) “World’s Toughest Boat Race”, the Texas Water Safari.

USCA rules specify that a Marathon course may not have rapids over class II on the International Scale of River Difficulty whereas, in the United Kingdom and Ireland, courses may be of any difficulty and with any hazards including weirs, like those found in the Liffey Descent.

The most extreme courses can be found in South Africa, and grade V sections are not unusual in for example, the Fish River Marathon. Australia’s most famous marathon race is the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic.

Canoeing at the Olympic Games

Canoeing and kayaking has been featured as a competition sport in the Summer Olympic Games since the 1936 Games in Berlin and were demonstration sports at the 1924 Games in Paris. There are two disciplines of canoeing in Olympic competition: the slalom and the sprint.

Two styles of boats are used in this sport, canoes with 1 or 2 canoers, and kayaks with 1, 2 or 4 kayakers. This leads to the name designation of each event. For example, “C-1” is a canoe singles event, and “K-2” is a kayak doubles event. Races are usually 500 metres or 1000 metres long, although there were also 10 km events from 1936 to 1956.

On the 13th of August 2009, it was announced by the International Canoe Federation that the men’s 500 metre events would be replaced at the 2012 Summer Olympics by 200 metre events with one of them being K-1 200 metres for the women. The other events for men at 200 metres will be C-1, C-2, and K-1. This was confirmed at their 2009 Board of Directors meeting in Windsor, Berkshire, Great Britain on the 5th of December in 2009.