The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Canoe at El Nido, Philippines
Canoe at El Nido, Philippines

A canoe is a relatively small human-powered boat. It is propelled by one or more people (depending on the size of canoe), using single-bladed paddles. The paddlers face in the direction of travel, either in a seated position or kneeling on the bottom of the boat. Canoes are often open on top and pointed at both ends. Slalom canoes, however, are closed, like kayaks. They are generally fairly rigid.


Ambiguity over the word Canoe

Confusingly, the sport of canoeing, organised at the top level by the International Canoe Federation, uses the word canoe to cover both canoes as defined here, and kayaks (see below for a brief description of the differences between a kayak and a canoe). In fact, the sport of canoe polo is exclusively played in kayaks. This confusing use of canoe to generically cover both canoes and kayaks is not so common in American usage, but is common in Britain, Australia and presumably many parts of the world, both in sporting jargon and in colloquial speech. In these circumstances, the canoe as defined here is sometimes referred to as an open, Canadian, or Indian canoe, though these terms have their own ambiguities.

A 'canoe' in this ambiguous sense is a paddled vessel in which the user faces the direction of travel.


Early canoes were dugout canoes, formed of hollowed logs. In the Pacific Islands, dugout canoes are fitted with outriggers for increased stability in the ocean. In the northern parts of North America, canoes were traditionally made of a wood frame covered with bark of a birch tree, pitched to make it waterproof. Later, they were made of a wooden frame, wood ribs, other wood parts (seats, gunwales, etc.) and covered with canvas, sized and painted for smoothness and watertightness. For a while, canoes were made of aluminum. Modern canoes are often covered with fiberglass or other composites.

Depending on the intended use of a canoe, the various kinds have different advantages. For example, a canvas canoe is more fragile than an aluminum canoe, and thus less suitable for use in rough water; but it is quieter, and so better for observing wildlife. Aluminum canoes are heavier than water and more likely to sink if overturned unless the ends are filled with foam or an air-tight pocket, which cuts down on storage space. However, they are durable and do not require as much maintenance as a canoe made of natural materials. Canoes mainly used on lakes should have a keel to make them easier to handle in crosswinds; however, canoes for rough water generally do not have keels, to keep the draft as shallow as possible.

The parts of a canoe

View of a typical canoe from above
  1. Bow
  2. Stern
  3. Hull
  4. Seat
  5. Thwart (a horizontal crossbeam near the top of the hull)
  6. Gunwale (pronounced gunnel; the top edge of the hull)
  7. Compartment containing a foam block (prevents the canoe from sinking if capsized)


Canoes have a reputation for instability, but this is not true if they are handled properly. For example, the occupants need to keep their center of gravity as low as possible.

When two people occupy a canoe, they paddle on opposite sides. For example, the person in the bow (the bowman) might hold the paddle on the port side, with the left hand just above the blade and the right hand at the top end of the paddle. The left hand acts mostly as a pivot and the right arm supplies most of the power. Conversely, the sternman would paddle to starboard, with the right hand just above the blade and the left hand at the top. For travel straight ahead, they draw the paddle from bow to stern, in a straight line parallel to the gunwale.


The paddling action of two paddlers will tend to turn the canoe toward the side opposite the side the sternman is paddling on. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most canoes have flat-bottomed hulls. Thus, steering is particularly important. Steering techniques vary widely, even as to the basic question of which paddler should be responsible for steering.

Among experienced white water canoers, the sternman always steers the canoe, except in the case of extreme emergencies, such as avoiding rocks and other obstacles that the sternman cannot see. This is because there can be only one person in charge for the rapid decisions required to negotiate rapids, and a sternman can always see the entire boat without turning. In addition, the sternman can use the bowman as a sight to keep the canoe moving in a stable direction. Among less experienced canoers, the canoe can also be steered from the bow. The advantage of steering in the bow is that the bowman can change sides more easily than the sternman. Steering in the bow is also more intuitive than steering in the stern, because to steer to starboard, the stern must actually move to port. On the other hand, the paddler who does not steer usually produces the most thrust, and the greater source of thrust should be placed in the bow for greater steering stability.

  • Advocates of steering in the stern often use the J-stroke, which is so named because, when done on the port side, it resembles the letter J. It begins like a standard stroke, but towards the end, the paddle is rotated and pushed away from the canoe. This conveniently counteracts the natural tendency of the canoe to steer away from the side of the sternman's paddle.
  • Alternatively, the pry stroke may be used. It is not really a stroke, because the paddle does not move relative to the canoe. The paddle is inserted in the water, with the blade facing forward and outward, and the lower hand resting on the outside of the hull. The force of the water against the paddle pushes the paddle into the hull.
  • The draw stroke exerts a force opposite to that of the pry. The paddle is inserted in the water some distance from the gunwale, facing towards the canoe, and is then pulled inward. The bottom hand holding the paddle does not cross the body on a draw stroke.
  • The cross-draw stroke is a bowman's stroke that exerts the same vector of force as a pry, by moving the blade of the paddle to the other side of the canoe without moving the paddler's hands. The arm of bottom hand crosses in front of the bowman's body to insert the paddle in the water on the opposite side of the canoe some distance from the gunwale, facing towards the canoe, and is then pulled inward while the top hand pushes outward. The cross-draw is much stronger than the draw stroke.
  • The sweep is unique in that it steers the canoe away from the paddle regardless of which end of the canoe it is performed in. The paddle is inserted in the water some distance from the gunwale, facing forward, and is drawn directly backward.

Setting poles

On swift rivers, the sternman may use a setting pole. It allows the canoe to be move through water too shallow for a paddle to create thrust, or against a current too quick for the paddlers to make headway. With skillful use of eddies, a setting pole can propel a canoe even against moderate (class III) rapids.

Similar boats

  • The main difference between a kayak and a canoe is that a kayak is a closed canoe meant to be used with a double-bladed paddle, one on each end, instead of a single bladed paddle. The double-bladed paddle makes it easier for a single person to handle a kayak. Kayaks are more commonly enclosed on top with a deck, making it possible to recover from a capsize without the kayak filling with water, although there are also closed canoes, which are common in competition. The deck is an extension of the hull, with a special sheet called a spraydeck sealing the gap between deck and the paddler .
  • A rowboat is not really like a canoe, since it is propelled by oars resting in pivots on the gunwales. A single rower works 2 oars, and sits with his or her back toward the direction of travel. Some rowboats, such as a River Dory or a raft outfitted with a rowing frame are suitable for whitewater.
  • The outrigger canoe consists of a hull and a secondary floating support.
  • The Adirondack guideboat is rowboat that has similiar lines to a canoe. However the rower sits closer to the bilge and uses a set of pinned oars to propell the boat.

External links

  • Movie of canoeing on the Charles River, Boston, Mass., 1904
  • Canadian Canoe Museum
  • Wooden Canoe Heritage Association

Last updated: 02-02-2005 05:01:57
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55