17 September 2019

Getting started – Canoeing

June 27, 2008

Fancy learning a water sport that you can enjoy year round in the city or countryside? Then why not give canoeing a go?

canoeing-anchor.pngCanoeing is a great sports activity – there are so many places you can do it; you don’t have to rely on someone else turning up and you can quickly escape the hassles of city living for a while. Not only that, but it is the UK’s biggest participant watersport as well as an Olympic sport and, much like cycling, there are different types of craft for different conditions.

The British Canoe Union has an individual membership of over 30,000, 625 affiliated clubs and 145 approved centres. An estimated 2 million people take to the water in a canoe each year and the vast majority do so under a watchful eye of one of the 10,500 BCU Qualified coaches or as part of an affiliated organisation.

Where do I start?

We would always recommend starting by joining a club – that way you don’t have much outlay and you can try several different boats before you decide to buy your own. You will also potentially make new friends along the way. To find a club or approved centre check out the British Canoe Union Website www.bcu.org.uk.

The chances are, the club that you choose will dictate the type of canoeing that you take up. Some of the bigger clubs will have sections for recreation and touring alongside Olympic level training groups and other clubs will specialise in a specific style of canoeing like Slalom or Flatwater (definitions are given at the end of the end of the feature).

Moat canoeing is done sitting in the boat using a double ended paddle, although there is also the option of kneeling and using a single paddle – this is known as Canadian canoeing and the boats are generally very stable and aimed at recreation.

Canoeing is also a very inclusive sport, not only are there a vast array of boats to suit most abilities but the BCU also run an initiative called Paddle-Ability which promotes participation for people with a disability.

Is it canoeing or kayaking?

The generic term is canoeing, you have canoe clubs and go canoeing, however officially a sit in canoe is actually a kayak. So a single kayak would be a single sit down boat and you would use a double-ended paddle to propel yourself. A canoe is actually a wide open topped boat (popular in Canada and the States) that you can kneel or sit in and you generally use a single ended paddle. Canoeists are often referred to as paddlers too – just to confuse things!

Will I get wet?

Yes – the chances are you will get wet, either from the splashing of the paddles or from completely falling in the water. Depending on your boat, it is not inevitable that you will fall in, however you do need to be able to swim adequately to get involved in canoeing. Getting wet is all part of the fun, so expect to get messy and take a change of clothes for after.

Clubs will also have a supply of bouyancy aids (life jackets) that you will be required to wear, this may seem cumbersome at first but after a while you won’t notice it. You may see that experienced flatwater paddlers will choose not to wear one, but that is because they know what they are doing – as a novice you must always wear one.


Is it dangerous?

Well it can be, but on the whole no. As a beginner, as long as you are sensible, can swim and follow the advice then it is a safe sport.

As with all water sports there is potential danger, which is why you need to be able to swim and as an added precaution you wear a buoyancy aid. The recommended advice is that you never go out alone, and obviously you must use your common sense. If the water is very still and fairly shallow the chances of anything going wrong are very slim indeed, however if you are going out onto fast moving water or out to sea then the danger level is increased considerably.

The boats

As a beginner you will be given a very stable boat to learn in, this would be classed as a recreational canoe. Some will have a rudder that will help you steer (controlled by your feet) and others will not have a rudder and you will steer with your paddles. Boats without a rudder can be frustrating at first and you may find yourself going round in circles, but persevere because once you get a feel for how your paddle stroke affects the movement of the boat you will be fine.

Depending on your club you may then progress to:

Slalom – a very stable short canoe, designed to be used in fast moving water and rapids. The competitions involve negotiating suspended poles and this is the kind of canoeing where you can learn the Eskimo Roll (where if you capsize you can roll back up again) This discipline can be seen in the Olympics.

Wild Water – a slightly longer racing boat designed for negotiating fast moving rivers and rapids with the aim to complete an a-b course of around four miles as quickly as possible. These are reasonably stable boats but designed for speed so not as stable as a slalom or recreational boat.

– a flatwater racing boat is the least stable boat, it is for designed speed on lakes and rivers. Most people learning this type of canoeing will capsize regularly and even top internationals occasionally fall out. These boats have a large cockpit that is easy to get in and out of. These boats come in single, double and four man boats.

Sea Kayak – a stable boat designed for touring or racing on the sea. This type of canoeing has grown in popularity over the past few years and is very popular with wildlife and nature enthusiasts. This boat can be a single or double.

Open Canadian Canoe – wide stable boat that is sat or kneeled in, a single ended paddle is used. Available in single or double boats.

Within these categories there are also many subcategories including surf kayaking, canoe polo and freestyle.



Its relatively cheap to have a go at canoeing, if you go to a club it is often free or very cheap to try out the sport. If you get a taste for it then club fees vary but are not usually more than £100 a year.

Boats vary enormously in price depending on style and level they can cost anything from £250 – £4000+. But there is a thriving second hand market in equipment so you need not spend a fortune. Paddles also vary £50-£300 and this is one area that you may wish to buy your own as your paddles are much like your running shoes and rather personal to you.

Depending on which type of canoeing you take to, you may also need to purchase a buoyancy aid, cagoule, spraydeck (covers the cockpit), and performance fabric layering items that do not hold the water. But to start with you can mostly get away with old sports kit and bare feet. Canoeists are not on the whole snobbish about kit and even competing paddlers are often seen in strange outfits and worn out kit.

So now, there is nothing to stop you, check out your nearest club or centre and give it a go. Canoeists are largely a friendly bunch and the clubs are mostly run by enthusiastic volunteers, so you are likely to get a warm welcome. Or try a registered centre where you can have a go with an approved coach.

Danielle Sellwood, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine



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