Canoeing, a history

Canoeing has been around since the pre-historic era as a way of traversing the water, often made from carved out logs, tree bark and animal skins.  In contrast to open top canoes used around the world, kayaks were used by Eskimos and originated in Greenland. They were built with a cover of animal skin stretched over the wooden frame of the boat that prevented water entering. The Inuit Kayak was brought to Europe in the late 19th Century with the first kayak club 'The Royal Canoe Club of London' being established shortly after in 1866. (It is due to this name that the common confusion between kayak and canoes is thought to originate). The first competition was held in 1869 and by the 1890’s canoeing was a popular sport across Europe. The sport made its Olympic debut with the Canoe Sprint at the 1936 Games in Berlin, although it did not become a Paralympic event until Rio 2016.

Canoeing, a competitive sport

Whilst canoeing has a long history as a competitive sport, para canoe is a newcomer on the competitive scene and has developed rapidly since the start of the 21st Century due to the efforts of the International Canoe Federation and the International Va’a Federation who pushed for para canoe to be included in non-disabled competitions. The discipline featured with exhibition status under the name paddleability at the 2009 Canoe Sprint World Championships in Dartmouth, NS, Canada, and was given official status as para canoe at the following year’s edition in Poznan, Poland. 

The sport later made its debut in the 2016 Paralympic Summer Games in Rio.

At the 2016 Paralympic Games the events were kayak only (propelled by a double blade paddle) however a decision in September 2017 announced that there would be three va’a (an outrigger canoe propelled with a single blade paddle) events added to the Tokyo 2020 programme.

Canoeing, a Paralympic sport

Para canoe appeared for the first time at Rio 2016. There were six events, three each for men (KL1, KL2, KL3) and women (KL1, KL2, KL3). The events are a 200m sprint race in lanes.

Great Britain is the world’s most successful para canoe nation, consistently topping the medals tables at major events winning 26 of the 93 world titles and finishing in the top three 55 times. Great Britain’s Jeanette Chippington has won 10 of those 22 titles for Britain, the most won by any individual. Funding from UK Sport has enabled a series of improvements and new athletes to take up the sport.

How canoeing has evolved

It was in 2011 when British Canoeing formalised its Para canoe programme with the aim to be leading the world at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. The recruitment of top coaches, a successful series of Talent Identification Days, along with the injection of funding from UK Sport, led to the addition of further support staff as the programme grew from strength to strength, culminating in Paralympic glory in Rio with five medals in six events, including three golds.

Rules of canoeing

In international events all races are individual events competed at a distance of 200m. There are six classes in which athletes are classified depending on their impairment for both kayak (KL1, KL2, KL3) and va’a (VL1, VL2, VL3), allowing those with a wide range of impairments to compete. Men and women compete in separate competitions and the athlete to complete the course in the fastest time wins the race. Only kayaking events have been held at the Paralympics to date, with other international para canoe competitions including va’a events.

Governing bodies

British Canoeing is the national governing body for all paddlesports, including para canoe in the UK.

At an international level, the International Canoeing Federation (ICF) and the European Canoe Association organise para canoe competitions

Regional clubs

The British Paralympic Association has created an online directory, Parasport, where you can search for and find out about sport and physical activity in your area. A list of regional clubs across the UK and further information can also be found on the British Canoeing website here