Kayak Competition

Competitive Kayaking



No doubt since the time of the first skin-on-frame kayaks, there have been paddlers eager to prove their skills on the water, and find out who among them was faster, quicker in the turns, or a better hunter.

It’s just human nature to want to compete, and find out who’s the best, going all the way back to the original Olympic games in ancient Greece.

It’s no different today. In fact there are two kayaking and canoeing competitions in today’s Summer Olympic games. One is the Canoe Slalom, and the other is the Canoe Sprint. And there are also a number of non-olympic kayaking competitions as well, such as wildwater, river racing, surf competitions, and even dragon boat racing. All involve paddlers of various skill levels competing to find out who’s the best — for pride, for fun, and in some cases even for cash prizes.

Slalom Racing

Slalom racing, also known as whitewater slalom, is probably the most popular form of competitive kayaking. Slalom kayaking is similar to slalom skiing in that the participants race both downstream, and upstream, as fast as they can, while at the same time navigating through a series of gates placed strategically along the course.

6a016767a85c8e970b01901cb8db26970b 800wiThe best slalom paddlers have a combination of strength, precision, grace, and calmness under pressure. This is a sport where fast reflexes, and the ability to make lightning quick decisions, can make the difference between winning and finishing in second place.

In the case of slalom kayaking, the numbered gates that the competitors are required to navigate are actually poles suspended from cables above the water. The objective is to through the gates — white and red are passed through while going downstream, white and green are passed through upstream – without touching touching them with any part of your equipment or your body.

The paddler is racing against the clock in this competition. Each is given three runs – the first is a time trial, and the last two are timed runs. The fastest two runs are counted toward that paddler’s final score. Then when all the paddlers are finished, the one with the fastest timed run is declared the winner.

Does this sound like fun? It is, and an intense workout, and also a great way to improve your paddling fundamentals and overall skills on the water.

River Racing

River racing is a different from slalom racing in that there are no gates to be navigated. Instead, each kayaker tries to paddle a section of river in the fastest time. There are several levels of river racing, based on the difficulty of the rapids along the course, usually ranging from Grade 3 to 5. There are also three different classes of boat involved in this type of racing — K1, C1, and C2 class — which is determined by the dimensions of the kayak.

Again, this is a kayaking competition where lighting fast reflexes and the ability to spot the fastest line are keys to success. The competitors start down the course in one minute intervals, and unlike the slalom, in river racing the paddlers are often running side-by-side as they race down the river.

This is another form of paddling that will test the limits of your skills and experience, as you push yourself ever harder to get through the course ahead of your competitors. It’s not for the faint of heart, and you shouldn’t trying river racing until you’re ready. But once you do, chances are you’ll become addicted to the run of pure adrenaline that this exiting generates in participants and spectators alike.


Whether you call it playboating, rodeo or freestyle kayaking, this is the most artistic and gymnastic of the various forms of competitive paddling.

Unlike other competitive kayaking varieties, playboating doesn’t involve moving from point A to point B, and the paddler isn’t racing against another paddler or trying to beat a specific time in order to win the competition.

James Reeves Play Boating 2007 World ChampionshipWith this type of freestyle or rodeo boating, the paddler stays in a specific spot on the river and uses a dynamic feature such as a wave or pourover in order to perform a variety of acrobatic stunts and maneuvers.

In this form of competition, the paddler will be in a “playboat,” a very short and stubby, low-volume whitewater kayak that is easy to spin, roll, cartwheel, surf, and perform aerial loops and a variety of other tricks.

Since freestyle kayakers aren’t racing against each other, a set of judges seated nearby rates each of the paddlers as they perform their maneuvers, and gives them a numbered score that is used to decide on a winner of the competition. These types of competitive events in the US are usually referred to “whitewater rodeos,” while in Europe and other parts of the world they’re known as freestyle events.


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About Julian Thompson

cb787c59d2808e1f609076e790ca977e?s=90&d=mm&r=gCertifications: Certified Kayaking Instructor (AKA)
Education: American Kayak Association
Lives In: Denver Colorado

I am a kayaking expert/instructor who has been fishing for over 15 years. Fishing is my passion, but kayaking keeps me on the water. I love to share my knowledge of techniques and tips with others. I live in Colorado with my wife and two kids and own a small kayak rental business On Grand Lake where I rent and instruct.