What is Canoeing, Kayaking and Surf Skiing?

What is Canoeing, Kayaking and Surf Skiing?

You’d like to dip your toes into paddling sports but not sure where to start? Reading this article is your perfect first step in getting started on your epic paddling adventures. We’re covering the basics of canoeing, kayaking and surf skiing, the difference between these sports and how to make the most of any paddling experience.

What are key differences between Canoeing, Kayaking and Surf Ski Paddling?

Canoeing, Kayaking and Surf skiing are part of the same family of watersports, consisting of paddling in small boats. For each of these sports, the paddler uses a different type of watercraft and paddle, which means a specific paddling technique and a unique experience on the water. 

The Basics

The canoe is an open deck boat, propelled by a one-bladed paddle. The kayak has a closed deck design where you sit inside in a low seat with the legs stretched out, using a double-bladed paddle. Surf skiing is the “younger cousin” of kayaking, where you’ll be paddling in a longer and narrower kayak, designed for performance and speed on open water, most commonly used in the ocean. A surfski  has an open "sit-on-top" cockpit. It is steered by a foot-operated rudder under the stern and it’s propelled by a double-bladed paddle, similar to the one used in kayaking.

Let’s compare these paddling sports, the type of experience each one offers on the water, and what to wear paddling, so that you get to choose the sport that suits you best.

What is canoeing?

The canoe is a lightweight, open deck water vessel, initially made by carving out a single piece of wood, propelled by a seated or kneeling paddler

What is a canoe good for?

The canoe is the best option if you are looking to explore the wilderness in comfort, cruising on slow-moving water like lakes or canals. You’ll have enough space for your whole family and pets, so you can enjoy camping or fishing expeditions together. The canoe is built for stability, so it is the safest option, you won’t risk capsizing. Still, a good quality canoeing life jacket or PFD, and comfortable water shoes are always advised.

Sure, the canoe is slower and tougher to turn than the kayak or surfski, but slow and steady wins the race, right? Especially if you want an experience to accommodate your whole family or group of friends in the same boat.

Here are the different types of canoeing, so you could choose the one according to your needs: expedition, wilderness tripping, river, recreational, whitewater (with a special type of canoe designed for rapids), racing, fishing and freighter (cargo canoe, having a large load capacity). 

What is kayaking?

A kayak is a small closed deck watercraft propelled by a seated paddler, using a double-bladed paddle.


What are the benefits of going kayaking?

A kayak will allow you to explore more in your paddling adventures, because it is super fast and responsive. Designed to be used in more types of water than canoeing, kayaking brings the thrill of discovering and immersing yourself in epic sceneries: you'll be able to use it for sightseeing, visiting waterfalls or to have some fun in white water rapids. You should be aware that the risk of capsizing is higher with the kayak. So keep yourself safe by always wearing a kayaking life jacket.

Here are the main types of kayaking, according to the kind of adventure you’re into: recreational, sea kayaking (or touring), whitewater kayaking, kayak surfing, kayak fishing.

Read our recent article to know more about the difference between kayaking and canoeing.


What is surf skiing (surf ski paddling)?

Surf ski is a type of watercraft similar to the kayak, but longer, narrower and lighter, which is steered by foot-controlled pedals connected to a stern rudder. Due to its sleek performance oriented design and steering system, the surf ski is the perfect option to paddle and ride open water swells in the ocean or sea. It was designed as a more efficient alternative to traditional kayaks for ocean paddling and it is very effective for paddling a big surf. The surfski is the fastest paddled craft available over a long distance, you’ll be able to paddle twice as fast than you would be able with a kayak.

Unlike the kayak, the surfski has an open “sit-on top” design, which means it will be easier to remount in case of capsizing, so it is safer for you to try it.

Surfski paddling was originally used in the surf lifesaving movement in Australia (starting in 1912) and it still is a well established discipline in surf lifesaving worldwide.

There are two types of surf skis: the Spec ski and the Ocean ski. The Spec Ski is the traditional watercraft used by surf lifesaving clubs, for keeping the swells safe and also included nowadays in lifesaving competitions worldwide. The Ocean ski, a longer craft with a deeper cockpit,  is used outside surf lifesaving for long distance ocean downwind racing, wave surfing, training and competition on flat water. The Ocean ski is designed for elite performance racing. It is longer, narrower and lighter than the Spec Ski. This makes it rather unstable, which means you’ll need a high level of skill and physical training to be able to use it. But don't worry if you are not an expert paddler yet, many producers launched wider and shorter surf ski models that are more stable and easier to use by beginner or intermediate paddlers. For surf ski clothing head to our online store.

Thanks to its mix of benefits, surf skiing gained popularity in recent years, as a way for hardcore paddlers to combine adventure, fitness paddling and racing into a single activity.

What are the benefits of surf ski paddling?

If you want to challenge yourself, combining in one activity a full body workout, the thrill of surf ski paddling and riding large ocean swells and racing/training in flat water, a surf ski is the best option for you! Its versatility allows you to mix it all together and have a lot of fun while paddling. It is also safer than kayaking: the sit-on-top design makes it easier for you to remount it in case of capsizing. It will still be challenging for you to keep your balance on the surf ski, at least at the beginning, so make sure you always wear a life jacket



Here are few reasons why paddling enthusiasts are switching to surf skiing: 


  • Versatility
  • The surf ski allows you to paddle super fast, which means you will be able to cover long distances. The surf ski is designed for racing ocean swells, but you can have a lot of fun paddling on flat water or catching waves on the surf line up

  • Full Body Workout 
  • Surf ski paddling is an intense workout, improving your endurance, your stamina and strengthening your muscles, while having fun outdoors in the waves. Surf skiing offers you opportunities for cross training for other endurance sports like running, swimming, cycling, cross-country skiing.

    • Fun

    It is so exciting catching waves with the surf ski: you’ll get the chance to challenge yourself with extreme surf sessions in big swell. And the best part is that the surf ski makes even the medium waves fun to play with. You’ll be able to catch wave after wave and use the surf ski to get you back for more

  • Adventure
  • Surf ski allows you to create your own exploring adventures - either is a day downwind trip in the ocean or discovering flat estuaries in your area, surf ski paddling is a great way to connect with nature and enjoy the outdoors


  • Speed
  • Surfskis are designed to be fast and efficient in the water - which means you’ll be covering long distances with less effort. The hull shape and the light weight make it the perfect craft for open ocean racing. You’ll be able to race along the coast or between the islands at great speed. The most well known ocean race is held in Molokai (Hawaii), first organized in 1976. This competition is considered the unofficial World Championships of ocean ski racing. If you are into ocean racing, that’s the event to add on your wish list and to start training for.

  • Lightweight design 
  • A surf ski weight is almost half of a sea kayak - that makes it extremely easy to maneuver in the water and super fast. It also makes your life a lot easier when it comes to transporting the gear to the paddling spot, which means more freedom to explore nature without hassle 

  • Beginner Friendly
  • Even though surf ski paddling requires a good level of paddling skills, balance and fitness, this sport is not destined just for elite athletes, especially since producers introduced more stable and wider surf ski models to accommodate paddlers of all levels. If it sounds fun for you, don’t hesitate to try it - book a lesson, be kind and patient with yourself and you’ll soon progress enough to start playing with the waves. As soon as you experience the addictive feeling of catching and riding the waves with the surf ski, you’ll be motivated enough to improve and get back for more.


    Due to its unique open water capabilities, surf skiing is very popular in the coastal regions with rolling swell: Australia, California, Hawaii, New Zealand and South Africa. In these surf spots it will be easy for you to find an outdoor center to book lessons, a guided tour or to rent the equipment. This way you’ll be provided with the basics of paddling technique, balance and on how to enjoy it safely.


    Make sure you prepare your surf ski expeditions with the right paddling gear to keep you protected from the elements, safe and comfortable. To keep it simple, here is a checklist of essentials for surf skiing:

    What you need for a surf ski paddling adventure:

    No matter what water adventure you have in mind, when it comes to paddling gear, your best bet is wearing Vaikobi’s high quality technical paddling products and paddling accessories. You can count on Vaikobi to keep you on top of your game in all your paddling adventures.

    Have fun and enjoy the ride!


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