Different Types of Kayaking

Different Types of Kayaking

Kayak fishing

Kayak Fishing is one of the greatest ways to access those hard to reach fishing waters while enjoying the art of kayaking. Kayak fishing is still in its infancy and new members join the ranks daily.

Kayak Polo

Known also as ‘canoe polo’, kayak polo is a type of kayaking team sport. It is played in kayaks (not Canoes), and also involves a water polo ball and two rectangular goals. It is generally played in a 40m by 25m rectangular area (e.g. a large swimming pool), and goals are suspended 2m above each goal line. Boats are padded on their bow and stern to prevent injury, and players wear helmets with face masks, and PFDs with additional padding on the sides. You can also ram into other peoples kayaks causing them to roll or put them off. Although canoes are not used, kayak polo is also known as ‘canoe polo’.


There are several ways to get into kayak sailing. Each has its proponents and its advantages.

  • Kite sailing
  • Umbrella sailing
  • Fixed rig sailing

Any kayak can be sailed, however some are easier to use than others. Double kayaks have the advantage of letting one person handle the sail while the other manages the kayak. Some paddlers have success steering rudderless kayaks under sail, but most will find a ruddered kayak easier. Folding kayaks have long had sailing rigs as an option.

Lee boards – to prevent leeward drift of the kayak when trying to sail close to the wind – are available for some kayaks. They can make sailing more efficient. Many kayaks will have enough lateral resistance to sail reasonably well without lee boards.

Kayak Surfing

Kayak surfing (or surf kayaking) is type of kayaking similar to conventional surfing. It involves catching waves and generally playing in surf.

This is a rapidly growing sport enjoyed by many kayakers. Playing in surf is a great way to develop fundamental kayaking skills.

For some, kayak surfing may be a sport unto itself, while for others it is a part of a broader set of kayaking activities. Dedicated surfers tend to use specialized boats more akin to whitewater kayaks. Sea kayakers often surf in their general purpose boats as a way of developing rough water skills. The difference in equipment and objectives of kayak surfers can sometimes lead to conflict when two different groups share the same surfing area.


Marathon kayaking is a competitive type of kayaking involving flatwater racing, like a Sprint only over much longer distances (same terminology as in running)

Canoeing over long distances has been known as long as Canoeing has been an organized sport. For many years this activity lead to national competitions only. Some of the known established events in those days were the Kronborg race in Denmark, later the Devizes to Westminster race in Great Britain, and the very colourful Sella Descent in Spain.

Inter-club marathon racing started in Britain in the 1950s with races such as the Bedford to St Neots Race and the Cambridge Marathon, both of which celebrated their fiftieth anniversaries in 2006.

International interest first really came about in the 1960’s, when national teams started participating regularly in the Devizes and Sella events as well as in the Liffey Descent in Ireland. And when the Danish Tour de Gudena began in 1968 the international interest for long distance racing increased immensely. In only a few years this race became a big hit with up to 20 countries entering and more than 1,000 paddlers competing.

Today Canoe Marathon is being practiced around the world on all continents and in more than 50 countries. The excitement of a Marathon race particularly during the portages, and the high quality of paddlers in most classes indicate, that Canoe Marathon has the potential of becoming one of the more important disciplines of the International Canoe Federation. One or two categories of Canoe Marathon at Olympic Games could add to the image of our sport in general. A sport with a lot of exciting variety.

Today, the top marathon races include multiple portages, requiring the paddler to exit his or her boat and the water at top speed. A top marathon K-1 paddler will stand up in their tippy ICF K-1s just as they approach the beach, jump, grab, and run with the boat held often by a “suitcase handle”. The re-entry is just as spectacular as they run, throw the boat down onto the water, and step in – glide (like stepping onto a skate board) and sit down and begin a full on paddle stroke.

Marathon Racing in Britain

Britain is, arguably, the spiritual home of marathon racing, and certainly has a set-up which has provided plenty of world champions. The British system is based around a national competition, the Hasler Trophy, named after Blondie Hasler who, in the Second World War, led a daring raid up the river Gironde, in kayaks, to sabotage German ships. The Hasler system is unique in the world of sport in that paddlers are ranked purely on ability, not on age or sex, so, for example, a ten year old girl could compete on equal terms with a thirty year old man.

There are nine divisions. Paddlers start in division nine, competing over four miles. Times comparable to those in higher divisions will earn promotion, similarly, those in higher divisions who perform poorly will be demoted. Races in divisions 7-9 are over four miles; divisions 4-6 are over 8 miles, and the elite paddlers in divisions 1-3 compete over 12 miles. Lower division races are always on placid water and do not usually involve portages, whereas these are compulsory in the middle and higher divisions. Weir shoots and higher grade water are not unusual in higher divisions. Races take place on a wide range of water, from canals only 20 feet wide, to rivers, lakes, estuaries and open sea.

Clubs compete in regional competitions, with the top four clubs in each region qualifying for the Hasler Finals in September or October. Elmbridge Canoe Club, from Surrey, are Britain’s top marathon club, with Reading, Leighton Buzzard, Worcester, Nottingham, Banbury, Wey, Kirkaldy and Norwich. The Banbury club’s website, www.banburycanoe.org.uk contains a lot of general information about marathon racing, and a comprehensive links page.

Marathon Racing in South Africa

The home of extreme marathon racing is South Africa. Here, tippy marathon boats are paddled on water up to grade 5, and some of the races have to be seen to be believed. The Dusi and Fish River races are both ultra-marathons more than 80 kilometres long, and contain portages of up to 10km long. It is not uncommon for paddlers to retire from races because of snakebite!

Sea kayaking

Sea Kayaking is a type of kayaking that is popular with people of all ages, men and women alike. An activity where the paddler can get closer to nature than folk in motorboats, or even on foot; Sea Kayaking allows one to venture forth for an afternoon or a month, without the need for any outside assistance.

A highly seaworthy craft, sea kayaks can be paddled in the roughest of conditions, or paddled in an extremely quiet manner that doesn’t disturb birds or other wildlife.

Snow Kayaking

The idea of kayaking on snow is not new – there are mentions of canvas boats being used in the 1950s, and it was probably going on even earlier. However, although there have been informal downhill and slalom competitions, it is only now that the sport is beginning to take off. There aren’t any hard and fast rules yet, but these are bound to develop soon.

There are two main forms emerging, firstly freestyle, which is a blend of skills from freestyle kayaking and freestyle skiiing or boarding. How long before moguls and half-pipe make an appearance? Secondly,snow kayak cross, in which, much like the ski and snowboard versions, four paddlers at a time race down a course as fast as possible, using paddls to steer, brake and gain speed.

The best sort of course seems to be something halfway between a board-X course and a bobsleigh run. All sorts of plastic boats can be seen: playboats have steering advantages, whereas GP boats go faster. The sign that the sport has really taken off will be the development of specialised snow boats and snow paddles.


Flatwater sprint racing is a contest of speed, strength and endurance in which athletes compete head to head on calm bodies of water. There are 12 sprint events on the Olympic program. Men compete in single and double canoes and kayaks at distances of 500 and 1,000 meters and in four-man kayaks over 1,000 meters. Women compete in single, double and four-woman kayaks in 500 meter races. National sprint events conducted annually include U.S. National Team Trials and US National Championships.


Touring is a type of kayaking. It is the generic term for non-surfing/non-whitewater paddling. It can involve a trip lasting anywhere from 1 hour to several days.

Most touring kayaks are 12-20 feet long although single kayaks are rarely longer than 19 feet. For comfortable ocean touring, a single kayak should be roughly 14-17 feet long.

Touring paddles are long (200 to 220 cm or in some cases up to 240 cm). Since several thousand strokes are taken in a typical hour of paddling, light weight is an important feature for these paddles.

Whitewater kayaking

Whitewater kayaking is a type of kayaking which takes place on whitewater. This includes rivers and in some cases ocean surf and tidal races. Paddling in swift water requires knowledge of how water acts around various types of obstacles and quick reaction times.

Whitewater kayaks are shorter and more manouvreabile that other types of kayak.

Whitewater paddles

Whitewater (WW) paddles are superficially similar to sea kayak Euro paddles. The differences tend to be:

  • WW paddles tend to be shorter – they must be wielded in tight, shallow or hectic situations.
  • WW paddles tend to have stiffer shafts – the stiffness directly contributes to applied power.
  • WW paddlers tend to prefer one-piece paddles, while sea kayakers often prefer a take-apart
  • WW paddle blades are usually bigger in size with a bit less assymmetry. This due to the requirement for a lot of power in the stroke and a high-angle stroke.
  • Feather angles are little different between WW and sea kayaking. Every paddler has their preference. However, changes to smaller feather angles happened in WW before being seen among sea kayakers.
  • WW paddles focus on strength rather than lightness.


Creeking or Creekboating is a type of kayaking which is arguably the most extreme form of whitewater kayaking, taking place in steep profile whitewater (creeks). It represents the oposite end of the spectrum from playboating, in that creek boat design is very functional rather than playful, the aim being to make it down larger drops, and punch through bigger stoppers which would normally trap a low-volume playboat.

Creeking is something of a buzzword sweeping the whitewater kayaking world at the moment, although it could be regarded as a return to the older style heavy high-volume whitewater kayak design.

A Creek boat is made of thick plastic for durability and has a lot of volume for resurfacing and control.

Freestyle or Play boarding

Playboating is perhaps the most modern type of kayaking. It involves showing off a variety of playboating moves, i.e. ‘playing’, rather than aiming to get from A to B.

Special short Playboats are designed to make this easier (allowing more flambouyant and sophisticated moves).

Playboating moves can often be executed on flatwater, but the ideal locations for playboating are called playspots (normally waves or holes)

Kayak surfing is a sub-category of playboating.

A playboating competition is called a Rodeo


Slalom kayaking is a competitive type of kayaking, in which one attempts to navigate a slalom course in the fastest time possible. The slalom course consists of a set of gates arranged on a stretch of whitewater including obstacles such as rocks. The gates are pairs of coloured poles, suspended vertically above the water, between which the competitor must pass without touching. The gates must be navigated in sequence and may be required to pass through either downstream or upstream – at one time it was required that some gates be passed through in reverse.

In proper slalom competitions, only slalom kayaks are allowed.

Squirt boating

Squirt boating is a type of kayaking involving very low volume whitewater kayaks called squirt boat. These are noted for being able to perform moves that involve getting submerged.


Wildwater or downriver racing is type of kayaking which is an exciting variant of whitewater paddling. Wildwater kayaks, at around 4.5m (14.5′) in length, are longer than whitewater playboats or even creek boats. They are designed for speed on whitewater and the races take place on courses that are roughly 8km (five miles) in length with class III and class IV rapids.

Posted by
Arthur G. Moore

Arthur G. Moore is a veteran paddler. He has over 10 years of whitewater kayaking experience in his kitty. When he was young, he used to love kayaking in rapid III and rapid IV but as time went on, he decided to concentrate mainly on covering long distances on a standard touring kayak. He is currently working as a senior editor for Kayak Manual.

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