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The difference between Canoe and Kayak

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

How can you tell the difference between a canoe and a kayak? The distinction is straightforward; it has to do with the athlete's position in the boat and the type of paddle they use to propel it.

In a kayak, the paddler sits and moves ahead by using a double-bladed paddle through the water on alternate sides.

In a canoe, the paddler kneels and propels the boat forward using a single-bladed paddle.

Canoes and kayaks are raced at all levels, from club to Olympic, with different boat designs depending on the type of water and discipline - sprint, slalom, paracanoe, marathon, freestyle, wildwater, canoe polo, ocean racing, and dragon boating.

We asked two Olympians to explain the differences between the Olympic disciplines of sprint and slalom. We also provide a quick overview of the boats used in each discipline further down the page.

A quick overview of the different types of boats used for each discipline

Canoe Sprint

There are several types of boats for each discipline; canoe sprint races are divided into categories based on the type of boat, the number of people in the boat, the gender of the competitors, and the race distance.

For example, if a race is referred to as a C2M 500m, it refers to a canoe8 race in which there are two men in the boat and the race distance is 500 meters.

There are three main variations on the canoe and kayaks that are raced to accommodate one, two or four athletes.

Above picture is a K1 and below you can see the three different sprint kayaks (left to right) K1, K2 and K4.

Below are two examples of sprint canoes – left C2 and right C4.

Canoe Slalom

In canoe slalom there are three different types of boat: the Kayak Singles (K1), Canoe Singles (C1) and Canoe Doubles (C2).


The conventional Kayak and the Va'a - a canoe with an outrigger to offer stability – are the two types of boats available at Paracanoe. The double-blade used in the Kayak and the single blade used in the Canoe (Va'a) follow the same principles.

Wildwater Canoe

The aim of this discipline is to take the fastest way down a rapid-filled course; as a result, the boats have a very unusual design to keep them balanced and fast. Kayak singles (K1), canoe singles (C1), and pairs contests are held (C2). A Kayak singles boat is seen below.


This is a sport where styles matter, and the ability to flip your boat in numerous directions is vital for success. The Canoe, Kayak, and Squirt Boat (shown left to right) are the three main types of boat; each is constructed with the sole goal of being able to execute stunts.

Canoe Marathon

Long-distance boats are made as light as possible so that competitors can pick them up and run across a portage. Athletes engage in Canoe and Kayak singles and doubles that are very similar in design to sprint boats.

Canoe Polo

This is a team sport that is played in Kayaks with rounded noses and tails to avoid injuries, as collisions are part of the game. The boat must be agile, stable, and swift, which is a challenging combination to achieve.

Ocean Racing

A surfski, which is a long boat intended to cut through the waves, is the most common form of craft used in Ocean Racing. Athletes sit in an open cockpit and use a double-bladed paddle to propel the ski forward. When the athlete moves, little scupper holes in the footwell allow water to drain.

Dragon Boat

Dragon boats are team boats in which competitors work together to move the craft forward with a single-bladed paddle.


Credit to:

Edited by: Joey Tai

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