Canoeing, Kayaking and Rowing: So what's the difference anyway?

Thanks for asking! There is a big difference actually. Of course there are tiny similarities such as sitting in a narrow boat that is propelled using your arms, or the fact that these boats can be paddled solo or with others in the boat. But, technically speaking, that’s where the commonality between rowing and paddling ends and the differences become apparent.


For starters, in paddling, whether canoeing or kayaking, you hold a paddle. In rowing you maneuver an oar. This may seem like splitting hairs, but I assure you it's not. A paddle is not attached to anything while an oar sits in an oarlock, which is attached to the boat and acts as a fulcrum for the stroke.

In rowing, the rowers actually sit facing in the opposite direction of travel. That's right, the way they row the boat necessitates that they sit facing the stern, or rear, of the sweep-oar boat or scull. Imagine not being able to see where you’re going! Such is the life of a rower.

Canoe/Kayak: Ok, so what’s the difference between canoe, kayak, slalom, and sprint?

Paddlers from around the world will compete in 16 canoe/kayak events in the 2012 London Olympics. Each event will have multiple rounds consisting of multiple heats en route to the finals for each of the 16 events. This makes Olympic Canoe/Kayak one of the largest most participated sports in the Olympic Games.


Let’s start with the difference between canoes and kayaks. It is quite common nowadays for canoes to look like kayaks and vice versa. So it can be difficult for an untrained eye to readily identify whether a boat is a canoe or a kayak. So, here’s a shortcut: look at the paddles. Canoe paddles have one blade and kayak paddles have 2 blades. Another obvious difference between the two is that kayaks are paddled while sitting inside the boat and canoes are paddled while kneeling in the case of slalom canoe and half kneeling in the case of the sprint events.

As far as the difference between slalom and sprint events, this is much easier to distinguish. Slalom events are paddled on a whitewater slalom course where competitors must paddle through hanging gates in very tumultuous water conditions. Slalom canoes and kayaks always have spray skirts attaching the paddler to the boat. Sprint events are flat-water races held over distances of 200m, 500m, and 1000m.


So, let’s put it all together. The first thing you’ll notice are the letters “C” or “K.” This tells you whether an event is a canoe or a kayak race. The number next to each letter tells you how many people will be in each boat. So, K4 is a kayaking race with 4 people in each kayak. If there is a distance listed in the event, such as 200m, 500m, or 1000m, that tells you that the race is a flatwater or sprint race. If no distance is listed, this tells you the race is a slalom race held on the whitewater course.

Rowing and Canoe/Kayak at the 2012 London Olympic Games

The canoe/kayak sprint events and all of the rowing events will be held just 25 miles West of London near Windsor Castle at the Eton Dorney Rowing Centre. The newly built Lee Valley Whitewater Centre in London will be the home of the canoe/kayak slalom events.

George E. Sayour, is an ACA Certified Kayak Instructor based in Hollywood, FL. Follow George at

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