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War Canoes 101

 Senobe Aquatic Club of Dartmouth, NS

 Hockey looms large in the popular imagination, but canoe-based sprint racing may actually hold the record for most venerable sport in the Canada. Its organized roots trace back to the lumbermen and fur traders of the 19th century, when regattas were hosted by lumber barons and conducted in immense thirty-six-foot birchbark canoes. As C. Fred Johnston put it in The Canoe: A Living Tradition, “the transcontinental canoe trip was a race against time,” so the competitors would have been seasoned pros. Of course, their techniques and technology were adapted from indigenous groups whose own history with war canoes extended much further back.

Although sprint racing in other forms has spread the world over, Canada remains the only country in the world to race war canoes. With over sixty clubs registered with CanoeKayak Canada, nationally the sport is alive and well. War canoes, also known as C15s, are manned by teams of fifteen, counting seven paddlers to a side and a coxswain in the stern to steer and instruct. The cox is often the coach, a unique point of difference from other sports in that the coach is actively behind his or her athletes in the heat of competition. Teams train to paddle an average distance of five hundred metres, but typically race two hundred to allow spectators a chance to catch the whole race. When nine lanes of the watercourse fill with a total of one hundred and thirty-five furiously paddling athletes, watching from the shoreline can be quite a spectacle. 

Ted works on a nearly finished C15

The athleticism of the sport makes a strong first impression, but the technology that serves it is also noteworthy. C15s have seen some refinements in the last hundred and fifty years, sometimes for unique historical reasons. For instance, the standard length was set at thirty feet to make C15s readily transportable by boxcar. Others changes, like those introduced by Ted and designer Steve Killing, served to improve performance. In Ted’s words, the old design handled “like a streetcar,” so he and Killing produced an asymmetrical design that put more displacement in the stern for better control. They also worked on more bracing arrangements that improved comfort for kneeling paddlers. Overall, these adaptations add up to a canoe which bears some aesthetic similarities to a dragon boat. However, the C15’s design optimizations make them lighter and faster, which provides a more rewarding experience for skilled athletes.

That said, the C15 still serves as an excellent starting point for new paddlers. Parents of young children are among the sport’s biggest proponents, because while the benefits of vigorous, whole-body exercise are immediately obvious, C15 racing also poses no concussion risk, which not all team sports can boast. It also teaches winning and losing in interesting ways, as the intense coordination leaves little room for grandstanding. Victories and losses are shared equally among teammates. Registration is affordable and open year round, with equipment and coaching provided. Competitions are organized in such a way that the focus is regional, which encourages families to follow along with teams.

For athletes who want to take their training further, however, C15s can be a stepping stone. C1 and C4 canoes are tippy and unforgiving to the amateur. After mastering the high kneel technique, C15 paddlers are able to more easily transition to an internationally competitive boat, a path that can lead all the way to the Olympics. Professional paddlers tend to go on to become mentors to their club, nurturing the next generation of talent.

As makers of C15s, we’re invested in both the history and the future of the sport. In 2013, along with Canoe Niagara, we helped sponsor the Bear Mountain Boats War Canoe Challenge at the Welland International Flatwater Centre. The event was a means to showcase C15s to the larger paddling community. Footage from the event provides an excellent visual introduction, so check out our Sprint Racing playlist on YouTube for more info on this exciting, storied Canadian sport.

Watch our sprint racing videos on YouTube:

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