Obscure Sports: Canoeing and Kayaking

In my continuing quest to learn about as many uncelebrated sports as I can, I think I've found the most thankless sport of all-time.

Imagine a race that is decided largely by whomever is fastest at a repetitive coordinated body movement, but one do something many/most humans never do, unlike running, swimming, and biking. When the race is deep, even at short distances, I am told your lungs really start to burn. "Fun" things don't happen like they do in basketball or so many other sports. You just grind, grind, grind. And there's no fame or fortune surrounding the sport at all.

Give up? Already know because I put it in the headline? That's right, it's collectively known as "paddle sports" but it's the sibling sports of canoeing and kayaking.

It's not rowing. While these are both Olympic sports, there are actually pretty significant differences. Rowers sit in an open boat. Canoers and kayakers sit in a tiny cockpit. Boats used for rowing are much bigger, with crazy long oars that are lashed to the boat. In canoeing and kayaking, the oar is free and in your hand. Rowers row facing backwards. Canoers and kayakers face forward.

When you look at the Olympic program, you'll notice races like "K4" and "C1." What does that mean? "K" stands for kayak, "C" stands for canoe, and the number refers to the amount of people in the boat.

So what, then, is the difference between canoeing and kayak racing? Kayaks have a seat inside while canoes do not, and more crucially, the oar a competitive canoer uses only has one blade or fin, and kayakers have two. In the races I saw, the canoers just paddled on one side of the boat, which did not, as I would suspect, make their boats go in a circle. I'm sure there are massive technical differences in their boats as well, but blah blah science. By the way, canoes used for racing look like this, not like this.

You'll also notice that events are further divided into "sprint" and "slalom" events. While I didn't watch any slalom, I do know the difference. Sprint races are done in "flatwater" (i.e. calm waters) while slalom is done in whitewater (think rapids crashing your boat around in an amusement park).

Still another difference between canoe and kayak is more abstract and the product of my opinion. Here's a recent Kayak race. Look at the way they gliiiiiiide. It's really quite beautiful, something out of a tranquil animation.

Now here is a recent canoe race. No gliding here, the boats look more like they are flailing. So much up-and-down, herky-jerky motion, like something is going wrong. It's all stop-start.

Which is why I think sprint canoe is actually the single most unglamorous sport there is. Everything I wrote in the second paragraph applies, and they don't even get to look sexy doing it or crash around in rapids.

Yes, there is something like a "tour" put on by the International Canoe Federation. They have four "World Cup" events each year, and various individual championships.

Planet Canoe routinely puts entire events up in one big piece on YouTube, and I'd recommend giving it a watch, if only because in doing so you will see the most disciplined athletes performing the most thankless discipline. They deserve a bit of hype.

Comments and Conversation

June 15, 2016

Jens Petersen:

Sprint canoeing definitely looks and is awkward; those narrow kneeling canoes take quite a bit of getting used to! Check out canoe marathons, these are done seated where the paddlers switch paddling sides to keep the canoe straight (called sit-and-switch paddling). They range from short 5 km fun races to ultra long marathons like the Muskoka River X, a crazy 220 kms spread over a few days. Their “sprint” is 80 kms! The Muskoka Classic is a mere 130 kms, but is done in a single day.

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