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An Introduction to Canoeing

By: Thomas Muller - Updated: 18 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
British Canoe Union Bcu Canoeing

It may be as old as civilisation but canoeing still hasn’t lost the knack of drawing the crowds with its exciting blend of competition natural wonder and wild splashing.

What is Canoeing?

Canoeing is the activity of paddling across waterways for scenic touring, daredevil thrills, sport or basic transportation. The British Isles are a canoeist’s paradise, with a brilliant variety of water to paddle down - from canals, rivers to lakes, and placid waters to white water descents.

Olympic Sport

Canoeing is also an Olympic racing activity, with the games featuring two events from the canoe world – flat water racing, or sprint racing, and the slalom.

Sprint racing takes place on flat water at regattas, and the distances raced are 200m, 500m, 1,000m and 6,000m. Competitors race in single, double or four man kayaks on courses with 9 lanes.

The slalom involves a turbulent 300 to 500 metre course where competitors must negotiate 25 gates. A five point penalty is incurred for anybody that touches a gate. The winner is the one with the best combination of fastest time and fewest penalty points.


There are two main types of canoe used in competitive canoeing – the Canadian and the kayak.

Canadian canoes are propelled from a kneeling position using a single-bladed paddle and can be used for both flat water and slalom racing. Kayaks are paddled from a seated position using a long, double-headed paddle. They also have a rudder for flat water racing.

Safe Beginnings

The safest, most fun way to get started with competitive canoeing is to join a local club. It will also prove important in helping to master the basic skills quicker.

The British Canoe Union (BCU) was created in order to send a team to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and is now the country’s premier canoeing organisation and publishes regional lists of affiliated clubs who welcome new faces, with many running special sessions for newcomers. Joining a club is also the easiest way of getting involved in racing.

Activity holidays also often include canoeing and this can be an enjoyable introduction to the sport. The BCU also run many different regional events that provide an opportunity for beginners to discuss the sport with experienced paddlers.

Risks of Canoeing

Canoeing can be a risky activity, particularly fast flowing waters. The key to minimising these risks is the combination of proper comprehensive training and experience on the water. Accidents in canoeing are largely due to lack of knowledge, the rider over-estimating their abilities and general carelessness.

The racing events have much fewer safety concerns because they typically take place on flat, slow flowing waters, and under either club or event supervision.


Beginners should be able to swim at least 50 metres and also feel confident in and under the water, otherwise if put in a capsize situation they will likely panic and put themselves and others in greater danger.

General Safety Tips

  • Always wear a buoyancy aid whilst in the boat.
  • Never canoe alone.
  • Always make sure you are properly equipped for the weather conditions.
  • Attend a first aid course and obtain a qualification.
  • Stay with the boat at all times. In the event of capsizing a canoe serves as both a buoyancy aid and a beacon, which can be spotted by others.

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