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Updated on April 18, 2010
Photo by Richard Dudley
Photo by Richard Dudley

Canoeing is a form of water transport and a sport, using a small boat which is relatively long and narrow, sharp at both ends, and usually without a rudder. The three main types are the open style, Canadian canoe; the enclosed Eskimo style, or kayak; and the sailing canoe. Canoes can be made from logs, skin, canvas, wood, aluminum, plastics, or fiber glass.

History of Canoeing

Originally canoes were used mainly for practical purposes such as fishing or transportation. The earliest canoes were probably logs hollowed out by fire or axes. Examples of these can still be found in the Pacific islands. Other early canoes were the British coracle, the Eskimo kayak, and the North American Indian birchbark canoe. These were lightweight canoes that could be lifted out of the water.

Canoeing as a sport dates from the middle of the 19th century, when a British lawyer, John MacGregor, wrote about his European travels in a 70-pound (31-kg) kayak-style canoe called "Rob Roy." In 1865 he called a meeting near London which resulted in the founding of the Royal Canoe Club. In 1871 the New York Canoe Club was formed; in 1880 the American Canoe Association; and in 1900 the Canadian Canoe Association. The parent organization of the present-day International Canoe Federation was formed in 1924. In 1936 canoe and kayak racing became official Olympic events.

Canoeing as a Recreation

The typical canoe for recreational purposes, especially in North America, is the Canadian canoe, modeled after the Indians' birch-bark craft. These canoes are usually between 11 and 20 feet (3-6 meters) long and about 3 feet (90 cm) wide and a foot (30 cm) deep at the center. They may or may not have a keel, and they are strengthened by crosspieces, or thwarts.

A Canadian canoe requires a single-blade paddle, 5 or 6 feet (1.5 or 1.8 meters) long. In the basic paddling technique one hand grips the top of the paddle and pushes forward, while the other is placed close to the blade and pulls through the stroke. With two pad-dlers, kneeling or sitting, one paddles from the front, or bow, and the other from the rear, or stern, on opposite sides. The canoe is kept on a straight course when both paddlers stroke with equal force. Steering is controlled by the rear paddler. When only one person is paddling from the stern a straight course can still be maintained by paddling on only one side. This is accomplished by twisting the paddle outward at the end of the stroke to form a J figure, thus offsetting the natural swerve imparted by the bow stroke. Other basic strokes include the backwater stroke, for reversing or stopping; the sweep, push over, and draw strokes, for maneuvering; and the underwater stroke, when silence is desirable.

Canadian canoes are safe and stable, provided simple rules are followed. Weight should be kept centered and near the bottom of the boat, occupants should not move about or stand up, and wide expanses of rough water should be avoided. Even if the canoe capsizes, however, it will float, and can be emptied out and reboarded at either end.

Canoeing as a Sport

Canoes and kayaks of varying sizes are raced over straight courses or obstacle courses. At present the Olympic Games has canoe events for men and women in kayaks and Canadian canoes, singles and pairs. Olympic racing canoes and kayaks must conform to the standards of the International Canoe Federation.

Kayaks differ from Canadian canoes by being totally enclosed except for a cockpit, where the paddler sits or kneels. The cockpit can be made watertight by a flap that the paddler attaches to himself. Kayaks can thus be submerged in rough water or rolled over and still remain dry. Kayak paddles are much longer than Canadian canoe paddles, with blades at each end set at right angles to each other. Each blade is in turn stroked on alternate sides of the boat. The power of the stroke is applied by pushing with the uppermost arm while the other is held rigid.

A popular kayak event in Europe is the white-water slalom. In this sport, kayaks are maneuvered on a predetermined and timed course.

Sailing Canoes

Canoes are often adapted to carry a light mast and sails. Usually either a centerboard is slotted through the bottom of the canoe or an outrigger is lashed alongside to keep the craft upright. Steering is accomplished either by an attached rudder or by trailing the paddle.

A fully decked sailing canoe is an international-class boat measuring 16 to 17 feet (4.8-5.1 meters) in length, with a 5 1/2-foot (105-cm) beam, and carrying about 100 square feet (9 sq meters) of sail. The navigator has an extension seat that enables him to move his weight over the water to keep the craft upright. The International Challenge Cup, which was first offered in 1885, is awarded for this class of canoe.


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