Back to basics - What is the difference between a kayak and a canoe?

Back to basics - What is the difference between a kayak and a canoe?

Simply put, canoes use a single bladed paddle and you (can) kneel in them facing forwards, kayaks use a double-bladed paddle and you sit in them facing forwards. But does it really matter whether we say canoe or kayak? Well, yes, but no…

If you want to buy a kayak paddle it matters that you don’t get a canoe paddle, however if you tell the coastguard you saw a canoeist in difficulty, they’ll just check up on every small craft in the area without differentiating. And in English English (but not American English) it’s common to refer to most small, paddleable craft as canoes anyway. This is why South Coast Canoes is called South Coast Canoes.

Canoe or kayak - the history

The trouble all began with a chap called John McGregor who in the 1860s paddled around Europe in a kayak and wrote a book about it and called: ‘A thousand miles in the Rob Roy Canoe’. He even goes on to call his paddle an oar, paddling rowing and when he hoists a little sail, he calls his canoe / kayak a sailboat so the categorisation of these little craft seems to have been confused from the start and not clarified much since*.

Back in the beginning, kayaks were wooden framed, skin covered boats, pointy at both ends with covered decks and a little hole in the middle for the paddler developed over 4000 years ago by the native peoples of the Arctic for hunting, fishing, travel and transport*.

Canoes, in most people’s minds are based on the open decked, birchbark boats developed in Northern America and Canada by the indigenous peoples for hunting, fishing, transport, travel and trade and boats which still look like that are often called Canadian Canoes although nowadays we tend to say Open Canoe because they weren’t exclusively Canadian and ‘North American and Canadian Canoe’ is a bit of a mouthful. Unlike kayaks though which are more or less exclusive to the Arctic, versions of canoes have been invented around the world, throughout human history whenever people have needed to get afloat, including here in Britain where the Romans record our ancestors using little flat bottomed boats for hunting and fishing in marshes and swamps - the forerunners of modern punts. Iron age traders on Poole Harbour used huge dugout canoes - there’s a cracking example in Poole Museum - and fishermen in Wales used little, round, wooden framed craft for fishing which you sit in, facing forwards and using a single paddle and which are still made and used on rivers such as the Taff - coracles of course.

Hang on though, you sit in a coracle, facing forwards and using a single paddle…so doesn’t that make it a canoe? Well, no, no one looking at an open canoe alongside a coracle would say they were the same thing. Nor, when canoes are propelled by standing up and pushing them along with a pole - which is a canoeing technique called, amazingly, poling - do they suddenly become punts. The truth is that there is a world full of indigenous small boat designs which are moved either by wind, paddle, pole, swimming or nowadays motor, all of which fall under the loose generalisation ‘canoe’ but which may look very little like the typical open canoe of popular imagination; the link though is that they can all be paddled with a single bladed paddle even though paddles may not be their main form of propulsion: punts can be paddled even though they’re usually punted (or poled), sailing canoes can be paddled even though they’re usually sailed. That is why British Canoeing call all small water craft activities ‘paddle sports’.

The difference between a canoe and kayak at South Coast Canoes

That’s that explained then, everything is really just a kind of canoe, unless it’s a kayak so it doesn’t matter what you call them? Well, as I mentioned before it does matter and perhaps modern jargon offers the easiest method to negotiate this taxonomic nightmare; at South Coast Canoes we just call most of them boats and then define them by their intended use or obvious design feature: sea kayaks we call sea boats, play boats are short kayaks for playing in white water, creek boats are rounded, bloated looking boats for tackling bigger white water (or creeks in American, NZ & Australian English, not English English though where creek means a muddy inlet where you’ll be stuck for hours when the tide goes out), a surf boat looks like a surfboard with a lid on while more recent developments have come with new names of their own which basically describe how they should be used: Sit on Tops, SUPs (Stand up Paddleboards), Packrafts etc. so I think it’s time to update the original definition.

So, kayak or canoe?

Canoes - Simply put, canoes use a single bladed paddle (all the time, most of the time or sometimes - or not at all but you could if you wanted to) although they can often be poled, sailed or motored and you (can) kneel in (some of) them (but some of them you can’t) facing forwards.

Kayaks - Kayaks use a double-bladed paddle (except for the ones which don’t such as the Alaskan Nunivak) and you sit in them facing forwards (unless you’re an Easter Islander where you might lie down and swim your Pora reed float kayak thing (or is it a boogie board?) through shark infested waters.

Right, that’s that cleared up, now I’m off for a paddle on the Basingstoke canal, in a fifteen foot boat with no decks so room for me, my dog and lots of food and flasks. Sometimes I’ll sit and sometimes I’ll kneel and I’ll be using a lovely handmade, single bladed wooden paddle so I will be in a …?

If you fancy paddling on the Basingstoke canal or anywhere else for that matter have a look at the list of kayaks or canoes below, all of which we’ve got in stock at the moment, pick your weapon and come on in, the water’s fine:

Canoes or kayaks we have in stock

- Hou Prospector canoe - definitely a canoe.

- P and H Scorpio - a sea kayak, looks much like the original Inuit boats except it’s made of plastic, not seal skin. Designed for paddling on the sea for fun and adventure, not much used for hunting nowadays.

- Dagger Stratos - a kayak, looks like a sea kayak but shorter, funner, more attitude.

- Pyranha Machno - creek boat, a kayak but big and bouncy to make you feel safe and skiddy and twitchy enough to make you feel skilful. Ideal for frothy white water, not great in muddy creeks when the tide’s out.

- Dagger Axiom - kayak, river runner. Obviously, it doesn’t literally run down rivers, you have to paddle it but it’s designed to ‘run’ easily down fast flowing rivers with lots of control but enough speed to get you through the scary stuff. If you want to play in the scary stuff it can do that too.

- Aquatone Wave 10 - SUP - Stand Up Paddleboard…or in my case, FOP - Falling Off Paddleboard. The easiest way to get afloat; drive to the beach, blow it up, paddle about, fall off, climb back on, fall off some more, paddle about looking down at all the sea life, deflate it, roll it up, stick it in the boot and drive home.

Happy paddling.

* If you want to see John McGregor’s canoe/kayak, the Rob Roy, it’s in Falmouth Maritime museum.

* If you want to see some Inuit sea kayaks, complete with all their beautiful hunting equipment there are good collections at The British Museum in London and the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth.