The disciplines

As a general rule, leisure canoeing favours open canoes, which can accommodate more people and have the added benefits of stability and ease of propulsion. Most canoe sports use the faster, more manoeuvrable kayak. However, there are exceptions. The different classes of boat are referred to as K1 (single kayak), K2 (double kayak), K4 (four-person kayak), C1 (single canoe), C2 (double canoe), and C4 (four-person canoe).

There are nine major disciplines recognised by the British Canoeing Union (BCU). Note that, although many disciplines are classed as races, they do not necessarily involve a massed start, but may be in the form of a timed competition.

Flatwater Racing

  • Paddlers compete over a distance of 200m, 500m 1000m or 6000m.
  • Mass start, each boat must stay in lane for the whole distance.
  • The course is straight and the water is calm.

Slalom Racing

  • Paddlers must navigate their craft through gate (pairs of poles which hang above the water to form a gateway).
  • The course is a 300m stretch of water. At entry level, the water is fairly calm, becoming rougher (involving rapids, waves, eddies and currents) at higher levels of competition.
  • Touching or missing a gate incurs a time penalty, which is added to the overall figure in which the competitor completes the course.

Wild Water Racing

Wild Water Racing

Wild Water Racing

This take place on turbulent water, as the name implies. Usually races are conducted on Class IV or Class V rapids, according to the grading system set out in the International Scale of River Difficulty. These classes are defined thus:

  • Class IV – Long, difficult rapids with constricted passages that often require precise manoeuvring in very turbulent waters. Scouting from shore is often necessary, and conditions make rescue difficult. Generally not possible for open canoes. Boaters in covered canoes and kayaks should be able to Eskimo Roll.
  • Class V – Extremely difficult, long and very violent rapids with highly congested routes which nearly always must be scouted from shore. Rescue conditions are difficult and there is significant hazard to life in the event of a mishap. Ability to Eskimo roll is essential for kayaks and canoes.

In Wild Water racing:

  • Paddlers race their craft downriver to complete the course in the fastest possible time.
  • The races are classified as Classic (variable distance, with the race lasting up to half an hour) or Sprint (a 400m to 800m course, the race lasting only 2-3 minutes).
  • No gates, time penalties or additional points for technique or style. The paddler chooses his/her own line down the course to complete it in the fastest time.

Marathon Racing

  • As the name suggests, Marathon Racing takes place over a long distance. Races last around three hours.
  • Racing may take place on flat water or a river.
  • The paddler must negotiate obstacles, or carry the craft around them (known as portaging).
  • Mass start, with the first competitor to complete the course being declared the winner.

Canoe Polo

  • A five-a-side team game, combining canoeing with elements of water polo and basketball.
  • Goals are scored by getting the water polo ball through a suspended basket at either end of the pitch. Both the paddle and the hand can be used to propel, pass and shoot the ball.
  • The game consists of two halves of ten minutes each.
  • May be played indoors (in a swimming pool) or outdoors on flat water.
  • Specially constructed polo-boat kayaks are used, each paddled by a single player.

Canoe Sailing

Officially known as International 10 Square Metre Canoeing, this sport involves sailing specialised, aero-dynamic canoes fitted with 10m2 sails. The addition of wind power greatly increases the speed achieved by the canoe.

A second form of canoe sailing, using open canoes, is also popular. There are separate competitions and clubs for the two variant forms.

Dragon Boat Racing

Dragon Boat Racing

Dragon Boat Racing

This form of canoeing originated in the Far East, and made its first appearance in the UK in 1980, as part of the ‘Hong Kong in London’ Chinese Festival. It is increasingly popular on the inner docks of East London, where pumped-up City boys enjoy the team spirit and intensely competitive nature of the sport:

  • Long, open canoes are paddled by 10-20 crew, sitting in pairs along the length of the craft.
  • A helmsman steers the boat, while the other role of the coxswain is fulfilled by a drummer, who keeps time and encourages the team through the beat.


  • A form of kayaking practised on white water, sometimes considered a form of playboating (US term).
  • Competitors perform a range of acrobatic tricks and manoeuvres on a river feature.
  • The paddler is awarded points for skill, technique and style.

Ocean Racing

Competitors race over a designated long distance course on the open ocean – from 10km upwards. Some races are multi-day events. This is a recent discipline, and includes a variety of events for kayaks and outrigger canoes. An outrigger canoe, or Va’a, being a vessel with one or more lateral supports, which improve the stability and seaworthiness of the craft.

The Ocean Racing discipline encompasses:

  • Surfski events, surf kayaking being a combination of kayaking and surfing skills in an ocean environment.
  • Sea kayak racing.
  • Sea touring.
  • Long distance outrigger events.