The energy and sound of 15 paddlers charging down the lake in an iconic Canadian boat is simply astonishing! Multiply that by 9 lanes and you can see why this timeless demonstration of power and teamwork is a favourite race at the Canadian Sprint Canoe Kayak Championships. Each paddler, up on one knee, bring the war canoe to life on the water as they paddle with synchronicity and intensity. War canoe racing has a long and cherished history in Canada. Canada is the only country in the world to race war canoe and it is the focal point of the club system.
Wooden war canoes have a distinguished beauty. Small alterations have been made to the design for increased performance but for the most part the boats have remained unchanged for decades. War canoes can also be made out of fiberglass or another composite which make them heavier and less fragile.
Single-bladed paddles are used and made of wood or carbon-graphite. These paddles are usually shorter and more durable than a C1 or C2 paddler would typically use. A cox blade on the other hand is much longer, as the cox is standing up. A slightly bigger blade gives the cox more control for steering.
A war canoe race is an amazing showcase of club pride as paddlers give it their all the entire way down the course. It is an even more exhilarating experience to be a part of. Like other sprint races, up to nine boats line up in lanes and compete over distances of 200m, 500m and 1000m. War canoe racing requires an exorbitant amount of effort and the finish line is always a place of exhaustion and jubilation.
War Canoe Lingo
Bun – a soft kneeling pad usually made of a canvas cover and ground-up cork to mould to one’s knee.
Cox – short for coxswain, the captain who stands in the back to steer the boat and makes the calls. The cox is also the 15th paddler in war canoe. In addition to steering a smart race, the cox’s strength can make the difference in a tight race.
Draw stroke – a sideways paddle stroke in which the paddler reaches out perpendicular to the boat and pulls the water toward them. Draw strokes can be used to spin the boat clockwise with the front two rights and back two lefts drawing. Draw strokes by the entire left or right side are used to centre the war canoe in the lane in the case of a side wind on the starting line.
Engine Room – the largest, most powerful paddlers are usually placed around the middle widest part of the boat where they can generate the most power. The two lefts and two rights in the fourth and fifth positions are sometimes referred to as the engine room and relied on to give a certain boost at key points in the race.
In stroke – when all of the paddles are hitting the water at the same time.
Gunwale – the top edge of the war canoe that runs around the boat.
Let it run – a call for the crew to stop paddling and take it easy.
Left-stroke / Right-stroke – the first most forward paddler is called the stroke. Paddlers in war canoe are staggered by about a half space rather than positioned side-by-side. A left or right stroke is often chosen based on what side the cox paddles on. Having the extra half space at the back gives the cox more room to reach out and pound in some strokes.
Paddles ready – the call for crew members to come to attention with paddle out of the water and across their knees.
Paddles up – the call for paddler to bring their paddles up to be ready for the first stroke.
Set of 20 – a counted set of 20 hard strokes to pick up speed and get everyone paddling together.
Straddle – putting one’s knee over the thwart. Depending on if the war canoe is stroked by a right or left paddler either all of the lefts will straddle or all of the rights will straddle so the crew is spaced out evenly in the boat.
Take it away – the call to the crew to start paddling.
T-grip – the top of a canoe paddle where the top hand grabs.
Thwart – wooden bars that run across the boat just below the gunwales. These bars are not to be sat on but rather are used as spacers to position the crew evenly in the boat.
Wash – war canoes generate a significant amount of wake. Crews that are ahead in the race have the potential to wash out other crews. When a crew “hits the wash” sometimes the cox is able to gain an advantage by positioning the boat to “ride the wash” and under extraordinary circumstances can overtake the leading boat. If the crew fails to pick up speed and cannot overcome the wash, they get “washed out” which can lead to havoc. Some crews lose control, go out of their lanes or even capsize while more experienced crews are better able to weather the storm.