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, in either a seated position, or kneeling on the bottom of the boat. Canoes are open on top, and pointed at both ends. They are generally fairly rigid.

Table of contents
1 Ambiguity over the word Canoe
2 Design
3 Use
4 Similar boats
5 Setting Pole

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 Americann usage, but is common in England, Australia and presumably many parts of the world, both in sporting jargon and in colloquial speech. In these cirumstances, the canoe as defined here is sometimes referred to as an open, Canadian, or Indian canoe, though these terms themselves do have their own ambiguities.


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 don't 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

  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 being unstable, 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. 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.

Similar boats

  • The main difference between a kayak and a canoe is that a kayak is enclosed on top with a deck, making it possible to recover from a capsize without the kayak filling with water. The deck is an extension of the hull, with a special sheet called a spraydeck sealing the gap between deck and the paddler. Kayak paddles are different in having two blades, one on each end, making a kayak easier for one person to paddle.
  • 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. Unlike canoes and kayaks, a rowboat is not suitable for whitewater.

Setting Pole

River canoers also use a setting pole for navigating portions of river where the water is too shallow for a paddle to create thrust, or where the desired direction of travel is opposite a current moving faster than paddlers can paddle. A setting pole is usually made of ash, or a similar resilient wood, and is capped on the ends with metal to withstand the repeated pushing against the bottom and rocks. The setting pole is used exclusively by the sternman. Combined with proper use of eddys, a setting pole can propel a canoe up-stream, even against a class-three river.