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Canoeing is the activity of paddling a canoe for the purpose of recreation, sport, or transportation. It usually refers exclusively to using a paddle to propel a canoe with only human muscle power. A kayak is propelled using a paddle with two blades where the paddler sits with their legs in front of them, whereas canoes are propelled using single- or double-bladed paddles where the paddler is kneeling or sitting on a raised seat. Kayaks are usually closed-decked boats with a spraydeck, while canoes are usually open boats. There are also open kayaks and closed canoes. Internationally, the term canoeing is used as a generic term for both forms though the terms "paddle sports" or "canoe/kayak" are also used. In North America, however, 'canoeing' usually refers only to canoes, as opposed to both canoes and kayaks. Paddling a kayak is also referred to as kayaking.
Open canoes may be 'poled' (punted), sailed, 'lined and tracked' (using ropes) or even 'gunnel-bobbed'.
In modern canoe sport, both canoes and kayaks may be closed-decked. Other than by the minimum competition specifications (typically length and width (beam)) and seating arrangement it is difficult to differentiate most competition canoes from the equivalent competition kayaks. The most common difference is that competition kayaks are always seated, and competition canoes are generally kneeling. Exceptions include Canoe Marathon (in both European and American competitive forms) and sprint (high kneeling position). The most traditional and early canoes did not have seats, the paddlers merely kneeled on the bottom of the boat. Recreational or 'canadian' canoes employ seats and whitewater rodeo and surf variants increasingly employ the use of 'saddles' to give greater boat control under extreme conditions.
The International Canoe Federation is the world wide canoeing organisation and creates the standard rules for the different disciplines of canoe/kayak competition. The ICF recognises several competitive and non-competitive disciplines of canoeing, of which Sprint and Slalom are the only two competing in the Olympic games. The United States Canoe Association is widely considered the American authority in sport and recreational canoeing, and recognizes many ICF classes. Other national competition rules are usually based on the rules of the ICF.
- Sprint - the oldest discipline of ICF canoeing, sometimes referred to as "Racing". It involves kayak (K1, K2, K4) and canoe (C1, C2, C4) classes. Flatwater races are over 200 m, 500m and 1000 m.
- Slalom - Competitors are timed in completing a descent down the rapids of a whitewater course, in the process steering their canoes or kayaks through "gates" (a pair of suspended poles about 1m apart), including going up against the flow, across the flow, and surfing the standing waves of the rapids. Again, there are both kayak and canoe classes.
- Marathon - Longer distance races over mostly flatwater courses, possibly including one or more portages. Course lengths typically vary from about 2 miles to the epic 125 mile Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Marathon on the Thames, and the 260 mile "World's Toughest Boat Race", the Texas Water Safari. USCA rules specify that a Marathon course may not have rapids over class II on the International Scale of River Difficulty.
- Canoe Polo - A fast-action competitive goal-scoring ball game on water, between two teams of 5 players.
- Whitewater Racing (also known as Wild Water Racing) - Competitors race specialised canoes or kayaks down a whitewater river (typically class II to IV whitewater is used).
- Canoe Sailing - Racing a canoe using sail power.
- Dragon Boat Racing - Since the 1970s racing of the traditional Chinese Dragon Boats has been organized. In general there are about 18-20 paddlers per boat, plus a drummer and a helmsman. The IDBF is the international governing body for Dragon Boats, discussions with the ICF about co-operation are taking place.
- Playboating (or Rodeo) - a form of canoeing or kayaking where the competitor performs tricks and stunts in standing waves such as front and back surfing, flatspins, cartwheels, and blunts, and receives points for the variety of moves performed within a fixed time. Points are also awarded for style.
- Extreme Racing - a form of canoeing competition involving racing down dangerous whitewater rivers (often with many grade V rapids and typically requiring excellent river running skills).
- Outrigger Canoe Racing - racing of traditional Pacific Ocean outrigger canoes. Very popular in Hawaii (it's the state sport), Tahiti, and other Pacific nations including Australia and New Zealand; well established in western North America and the eastern US, also catching on in Asia and Europe. International ruling body is the IVF. Outrigger canoes are traditionally referred to as wa'a, va'a, or waka ama. Standard racing canoes carry six paddlers; one and two person canoes are also widely raced.
- Surf skiing - The canoeing equivalent of surfing, but in a specialised surf kayak. Points are scored for the variety and quality of moves performed on a wave. Also whitewater kayakers and playboaters often surf non-competitively.
Other recreational aspects of canoeing are not strictly defined, and distinctions are rather artificical and growing increasingly blurred as new hybrid canoes, kayaks, and similar craft are developed. Some of these forms may be nominally organised at national levels, but are largely individual, group, or club activities. For many groups there is no emphasis on training, the goal is simply to use boats to have fun on the water.
- Whitewater - paddling down whitewater rivers for fun, recreation, or getting away from it all. Can vary from short local trips on easy grade rivers, to extreme expeditions on raging torrents in remote locations for many days carrying all equipment. Whitewater Kayaking is probably the most popular form of canoeing (as the word is used in Europe).
- Sea Kayaking - recreational kayaking on the sea. Includes everything from short day trips to year-long expeditions, may include paddling on heavy seas, in surf, or in tidal currents, and usually requires navigational skills.
- Playboating - surfing and performing tricks on one feature on a river.
- Canoe camping, Touring, Tripping, or Cruising - combines canoeing/kayaking with camping.
In some countries, these forms of paddling may come under the national canoeing organisations, but they are not universally accepted as canoeing, even though they involve propelling a small craft with a paddle.
- Wave Skiing - paddling a small, manoueverable craft (surf ski) a little like a bigger surfboard, amongst the breaking waves of the sea or ocean, variously sliding down the face of the wave or performing tricks on the face of a breaking wave. Close affintiy to surfing. The paddler sits on top of the ski and can be strapped in. Competition is based on points for tricks and style.
- Surf Skiing - paddling a long (about 22'), slim racing craft on the sea. Able to handle going in and out of breaking waves, but not for manuevering on breaking waves. The paddler sits in a bucket style seat and uses a kayak like paddle. Most common races are long distance in the open ocean where they can catch swells and get the feeling of skiing the ocean.
- White Water Rafting - one or a group of people paddle a small or large inflatable raft down a wild water river. Has much in common with White Water Touring.
Canoeing began to meet the simple needs of transportation across and along waterways. Canoeing was the primary mode of long-distance transportation at one time throughout much of North America, the Amazon Basin, and Polynesia, among other locations. As a method of transportation, canoes have generally been replaced by motorized boats, airplanes, railroads and roads with increasing industrialisation, although they remain popular as recreational or sporting watercraft.
- International Canoe Federation
- American Canoe Association
- British Canoe Union (England)
- Scottish Canoe Association
- Hazards of outdoor activities
- International Canoe Federation The international governing body for canoe and kayak sport
- International Canoe
- United States Canoe Association
- Canadian Canoe Association
- British Canoe Union
- Scottish Canoe Association
- Irish Marathon Canoeing
- Canoeing South Africa