Canoeing has been around for millennia, and canoes appear to have originated in the Americas. The Spanish term canoa was first used by Columbus, as early as the 1550s. This was in turn derived from the Arawak word canaoua. These were wooden, dugout canoes.

To a modern eye, the more recognisable form of the canoe is based on a wooden frame covered with birch bark – a design which originated in North America and was later refined by using canvas. This remained the basic construction technique until the advent of fibreglass and plastic in the 20th century.

The term kayak is thought to derive from the Eskimo term ka-i-ak, meaning boat of men. Doubtless these early craft were raced from time to time, and anthropological studies in the early 20th century note many examples of competitive canoeing. Canoeing as a modern sport, however, is a more recent phenomenon.

John MacGregor – Grandfather of Paddlesports?

Born in 1825, MacGregor was a Scottish explorer who was introduced to canoeing on a trip to North America in the 1850s. On his return to Britain, he designed a 4.6 metre craft, based on the Native American canoes he had paddled on his travels. Constructed from oak planking, and covered with rubberized canvas, the boat had an open cockpit and was powered with a double-bladed paddle. It was unlike any sailing vessel or rowing boat then in existence in Europe.

MacGregor constructed further boats during the 1860’s, which he then paddled along waterways at home and abroad. He published a book entitled A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe which succeeded in popularising the canoe, introducing Europeans to its versatility and simplicity. MacGregor’s discovery of the canoe coincided with a period when a new middle class was emerging, with the financial wherewithal and free time to enjoy leisure and sporting activities. Canoeing was therefore one of a raft of sports which boomed during the latter half of the 19th century. In 1866, MacGregor founded the English Royal Canoe Club, to promote the sport. Based at Teddington on the River Thames, the Club is still very active.

Key dates in the history of canoeing:

  • 1858 MacGregor returns from North America with blueprint for modern canoe.
  • 1866 English Royal Canoe Club founded.
  • 1887 British Canoe Association formed, an organisation concerned primarily with touring rather than competition or canoe sport.
  • 1920s Slalom develops in Central Europe. Used by skiers as a form of off-season training, with gates created by suspending poles above Alpine rivers. Not introduced to Britain until the 1940s.
  • 1924 Austria. Germany, Denmark and Sweden found the Internationalen Representation for Kanusport (IRK), forerunner of the ICF.
  • 1933 Great Britain joins the IRK, which is renamed the International Canoe Federation (ICF).
  • 1936 Inaugural meeting of the British Canoe Union.
  • 1956 The Open Canoe Association is founded, an association of canoeing clubs and individual members from across the UK.
  • 1957 First glass reinforced plastic (GRP) canoes appear on the market.
  • 1985 Dragon Boat Racing Club of Great Britain is founded.
  • 2005 The first ever semi-rigid foldable kayak, the Yakka, is produced by Bic Sport.

History of competition

Key dates in the development of competitive canoeing include:

  • 1874 The Royal Canoe Club institutes the oldest canoeing trophy, the Paddling Challenge Cup
  • 1935 First National Championships are held in Britain.
  • 1936 Canoeing makes its first appearance at the Olympic Games in Berlin. The IRK was based in Germany at the time, and the President and Secretary pushed the Olympic Organising Commit to include canoeing on the programme.
  • 1939 First ever British slalom takes place at Trevor Rocks on the River Dee in Wales.
  • 1948 A British woman enters an international canoeing event for the first time at the Olympics, held at Henley-on-Thames.
  • 1959 First World Championship White Water Race is held on the Vézère River in France.
  • 1961 First British Open Youth Championships take place.
  • 1965 First National Championships in Long Distance Racing is held at Bradford-on-Avon.
  • 1971 First National Championships take place at the National Canoe Exhibition, Crystal Palace.
  • 1972 Slalom is added to the programme for the Olympic Games, but subsequently dropped.
  • 1992 Slalom reinstated as an Olympic sport.
  • 1994 First Canoe Polo World Championship held is in the UK at Sheffield.