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A Beginner's Guide to Canoe Polo (kanupolo)

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RedElf (Elle Fredine) is a photographer, published author, and educator. Life-long learning is key to adding value to life.

Canoe water polo is one of the most entertaining, action-filled sports you are likely to see. To the uninitiated, it looks like a cross between basketball, hockey, and soccer - and jousting - all in the same pool - all at once. Sounds more like a recipe for mayhem than a sport.

Imagine, if you will, teams of healthy young men and women in canoes (kayaks to the rest of us), charging down the length of an Olympic-size swimming pool, paddles flailing, water churned to a froth as they try to maneuver a water polo ball into the opposing team's net by passing or throwing the ball with their hands or paddles.

They launch their canoes (kayaks) at each other with reckless abandon, often driving their kayak up onto the canoe of whichever opposing team member has the ball. Actually squashing them underwater on purpose is frowned upon, but if the canoe tips over in the melee, oh well... It's up to the players (and, perhaps, a passing, helpful team-mate) to right themselves.


An Overview

Canoe polo as we know it today is thought to have originated in the 1920’s. Paddling enthusiasts in Germany and France played canoe ball games as a way of introducing newcomers to the sport of canoeing, and for building river skills.

According to the Australian Canoeing website, at

"Serious canoeists paddled remote rivers but as the automobile was not yet widely available, only the most enthusiastic ventured out. It was difficult to attract new paddlers and spectators were few. Canoe ball games provided an exciting introduction to canoeing: challenging, safe, and close to home."

In 1926, the German Canoe Federation introduced the game of kanupolo, along with published rules, in hope of attracting new members.

The game continued to be developed by Canoe Clubs from a festival program game into a competitive sport, with playing time, team size, and the playing area being cut down. Games became standardized to two, thirty minute periods, played by opposing teams of five players on each side.

"Canoe polo was played in Great Britain in the 1950s. Oliver Cock was an early protagonist and in 1960, refereed a game played in canvas boats on a lake in Northern Wales. A different game was played in Australia. From 1952 through to the 70’s, the Australians used touring canoes with two players to each boat. The bow paddler played the ball while the stern paddler controlled the boat." - Australian Canoeing

Canoe polo can be played indoors or out-of-doors. In North America, we often see it played indoors, simply because our winters would mean a shorter playing season.

The game requires a great deal of stamina, along with the ability to swim and hold your breath underwater for at least as long as it takes to right your canoe.

Basic Skills - Rolling and Righting Your Kayak

Governing Bodies

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Rules of the Game

Though, to the spectator, it can seem that there is simply a bunch of boats and bodies charging pell-mell across the water, after a ball, there actually are rules governing the sport of canoe polo, though they may vary slightly between different canoe associations.

According to the International Canoe Federation:

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"The game is officially played as a 14-20 minute game consisting of two 7-10 minute halves. The teams change ends at the half-time period, which is 1 to 3 minutes long.

Each half begins with a "sprint" where each team lines up against its goal-line and the ball is thrown into the middle of the pitch by the referee. One player from each team sprints to win possession of the ball.

There are two referees (one on each side-line) and they are on foot rather than in boats. The score is kept by the score-keeper, while the timekeeper monitors playing time and sending-off times (penalties). The goal lines are monitored by 2 line judges. Before play commences scrutineers check all kit for compliance with regulations.

The ball, a waterpolo ball, is passed between players using hands or paddles. A player in possession of the ball can be "hand tackled" - pushed over on the shoulder or back - or "kayak tackled".

Players may only have the ball in their possession for a maximum of five seconds. Players can 'dribble' the ball by positioning the ball one meter or more ahead or sideways into the water."

Rules are mainly to insure the safety of the players, and cover such things as player substitution, illegal canoe tackles, illegal use of a paddle, illegal action against a capsized player, and illegal jostling and screening.

The video below shows some great examples of "sprinting" for the ball.

Practicing "Sprints"

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Basic Equipment

Equipment for canoe polo can be quite simple: you need a one-seater kayak and a paddle. You may also want some gloves to help you grip the paddle. Many leagues require protective body gear and/or life vests, unless playing in an indoor pool.

Swim-shoes will protect your toes and heels from banging about in the kayak's sometimes rough interior, and protective face and head-gear is a must.

There are many styles and varying costs for each piece of equipment, from modest to quite expensive, but when you are a beginner, you will need to balance cost against interest.

Your biggest single expense is the kayak, and a decent boat can run from several hundred, new or used, to several thousand dollars, depending on how much you want to spend.

As with most sports that require expensive equipment, it's always best to borrow or rent a kayak when you're starting out. That way, if your interest wanes or you decide this sport just isn't for you, you are not out of pocket for the equipment.

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In the news...

Interested in Canoe Polo?

I was introduced to this sport by a nephew who took it up at college. After watching his games and cheering him on, I decided that for me anyway, Canoe Polo is definitely a spectator sport. Unfortunately, I just don't have the right temperament. I love to swim, and don't mind getting dunked, but my first instinct, on seeing a one-seater driving straight for me, is to duck.

The sport continues to grow in popularity in North America as we are starting to catch up with our fellow enthusiasts in Europe and Oceania in embracing this strenuous, challenging, and exciting sport.

© 2012 RedElf


RedElf (author) from Canada on May 06, 2018:

Thanks Peggy - my thoughts exactly. A young friend was quite involved in the sport while at university. After watching a few games I realized even at a beginner level, it was far too competitive for me. Not my idea of a leisurely "Sunday paddle" nut great fun to watch.Thanks so much for stopping by.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 05, 2018:

I had never even heard of this sport. Good think that they wear protective gear especially on their faces. Way too dangerous to consider doing at my age! I voted that this would only be a spectator sport for me. Fun to learn of it however.

RedElf (author) from Canada on March 21, 2012:

Hi, Alex! I am quite content to watch from the sidelines, thanks, but it sure looks like fun!

AlexJadeB on March 09, 2012:

This is an awesome sport, everyone should have a go!

RedElf (author) from Canada on February 19, 2012:

FDK, I'd never heard of it until our nephew took it up and invited us to a game. What an amazingly physical game!

FutureDrKate on February 19, 2012:

That's awesome! Thanks for the hub, I had no clue that was a thing.

RedElf (author) from Canada on January 28, 2012:

It's easy to miss that important factor, molometer. Nice to know the Thames is cleaner now, though.

Micheal from United Kingdom on January 28, 2012:

Interesting read redelf. I have done a little canoeing and kayaking, on the river Thames many years ago. We had to learn how to do an Eskimo roll PDQ, as you didn't want to be in that river long. It is much cleaner today however.

RedElf (author) from Canada on January 27, 2012:

It's a great indoor event for spectators, Hawkesdream. Love your icon, btw.

Al Hawkes from Cornwall on January 27, 2012:

Wonder if it will ever become an Olympic event. Sure would be fun to watch.

RedElf (author) from Canada on January 27, 2012:

Thanks, Genna East! They call it the "Eskimo Roll" and I think it's required learning :P

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on January 27, 2012:

I have never heard of this sport cool! I would think that rolling and then righting your canoe is half the challenge. Very interesting hub. :-)

RedElf (author) from Canada on January 27, 2012:

Melovy, The name really tickles my fancy, too. I gather some clubs do call it Kayak Polo, but not in Canada :P

Enelle, I think they're all as mad as hatters - it's my kind of SPECTATOR sport, though.

Simone, you go, girl! You are certainly adventuresome! You and Allana should get together!

Allana Calhoun, you played water polo?!?! Wow! I am so impressed. I can see you now, in your kayak, charging down the pool after that ball.

Allana Calhoun from Chicago, Illinois on January 27, 2012:

Now this is a sport I would LOVE to participate in!

I love canoeing and played water polo for 3 years in high school. Combining the two would be awesome!

Great article!

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on January 27, 2012:

GYAH! It is taking all the self-control I have to not JUMP UP AND DOWN IN EXCITEMENT upon discovery of this sport! I don't know what's more awesome... that people are playing this today, or that that HAVE been playing it since the 1920s! Must... get... a canoe...

Enelle Lamb from Canada's 'California' on January 27, 2012:

What enthusiasts won't do to promote their sport! I think I'll just watch from the sidelines :P

Yvonne Spence from UK on January 27, 2012:

This is interesting. I didn’t know there was such a game. In the summer my kids love kayaking (I get told off if I call it canoeing so interesting that this game with kayaks is called canoe polo!) - anyway, what I was going to say before I rambled off was that I think they would enjoy this game. I shall tell them about the hub.

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