Long Canoes vs. Short Canoes: Which is Faster?

Canoeing is not only a remarkable outdoor hobby, it’s also an efficient means for you to traverse through the waters to move from one place to another. That said, not all canoes move through the water equally because of certain structural differences in both size and design.

Longer canoes are generally faster than shorter canoes. Any long water vessel will be faster than anything shorter than them. The logic behind this phenomenon is that longer vessels create faster waves. Vessels not powered by a motor engine ride on the speed of the waves they create.

There’s a substantial amount of science and mathematics to back up this claim. Below, we will put these scientific and mathematical principles into simplistic terms so that you can thoroughly understand why long canoes are typically faster than their shorter counterparts.

Why Long Canoes are Generally Faster than Short Canoes

All things considered, canoes nowadays are largely seen as a means for recreation as opposed to transportation. More than likely, a person will use a canoe as an excuse just to get outdoors rather than travel from point A to point B.

However, there’s a certain subset of paddlers that are concerned with the speed of their canoe. Whether they have racing aspirations or just a genuine interest in speeding across the water, it’s important to understand that canoe design can either help or deter a person from reaching optimal paddling speeds.

If you’ve recently taken an interest in speed, you’re probably wondering exactly what features to look for in a fast canoe. With so many different structural aspects to consider, it can be somewhat overwhelming to make sense of it all. Generally, the overall length of the canoe is a solid place to start when prioritizing speed.

As aforementioned, long canoes are faster than short canoes given that all other variables are equal. Examples of these variables include:

  • environmental conditions
  • paddling speed
  • weight carried by the canoes

Ultimately, the reasoning for this comes down to basic physics, namely the fundamental ideas behind hull speed.

Brief Overview of Hull Speed

Put simply, hull speed refers to the estimated maximum speed that a water vessel can go. It is the speed at which the wavelength of a ship’s bow is equal to the entire length of the ship.


As water vessels move through the water, it must displace any water that lies in front of it out to the sides. If you look closely at a boat passing by, you’ll notice that this water gets displaced in the form of waves.

At hull speed—or the estimated upper speed limit of a water vessel—you’ll find that two waves are created: one at the bow and one at the stern. These waves stay on pace with the boat by altering their wavelength.

It is a fundamental law of nature that long waves travel faster than short waves. We won’t discuss the conceptual basis behind why, since that discussion lies outside the scope of this article. The main takeaway here is that the longer the wave, the faster it will move.

Some people mix up this concept by misinterpreting wavelength as wave height. Wavelength refers to the distance from one wave crest to the next. Wavelength does not refer to the height of these wave crests.

Longer ships create longer waves. As we’ve already established, long waves move faster than short waves. Consequently, they have the opportunity to move much faster along the water compared to a shorter boat.

If you still don’t entirely understand the concept of hull speed, watch the clip below to learn more about the technical elements of this physics topic:

Hull Speed is Dependent on Waterline Length

The hull speed of your water vessel can be summarized with the following equation:

Hull Speed = √LWL * 1.34

The terms in the equation above are defined below:

  • LWL – the waterline length of your vessel
  • 1.34 – a constant derived from the speed of a wave whose length is equal to the waterline length of your vessel

From this equation, you can clearly see that overall waterline length is a major determinant of hull speed. As a water vessel’s length increases, the LWL term increases. After a bit of calculation, you will find that this ultimately results in a faster hull speed.

Essentially, all this mathematical equation does is further prove the fundamental concepts we discussed before. This mathematical equation not only applies to canoes, but all kinds of water vessels!

Why Canoe Length Isn’t the Sole Determining Factor of Speed

Earlier, we mentioned that long canoes are faster than short canoes, so long as all other variables remain fixed.

The second portion of that statement is critical because, in reality, these variables won’t ever remain fixed. As you paddle along a river, lake, or ocean, the paddling conditions are in a constant state of flux. Paradoxically, the only thing you can be certain of regarding these paddling variables is that these variables will always be uncertain.

In short, long canoes may not always be faster than short canoes in the real world. There’s simply too many different factors out there that can affect how fast a canoe can go.

Without further ado, let’s delve into what these determining factors are.

Stroke Rate

Stroke rate pertains to how fast a paddler can paddle through the water. Typically, a paddler that has a faster stroke rate will move through the water faster, so long as stroke force is maintained as well. After all, a canoe isn’t going to move fast on it’s own! In the absence of a downstream current, it needs a source of propulsion to keep moving at high speeds.

Thus, a faster paddler on a short canoe may be able to surpass a slower paddler on a long canoe. In fact, it can be argued that stroke rate is more important of a speed factor than a canoe’s length.

Paddling Efficiency

Contrary to popular opinion, stroke speed isn’t the only paddling factor that matters. A canoeist may execute very quick, short paddle strokes and still not get anywhere because their strokes aren’t efficient.

Aside from stroke speed, paddling efficiency plays a major role in how fast a canoe can go. There are various subtleties to proper paddling technique that can marginally affect the distance that the canoe moves with each paddle stroke.

For example, the J-stroke is one of the best paddling techniques for solo canoeists to use because it helps to keep the canoe moving in a straight line (source). By adding a slight pry to the end of each stroke, the canoe tracks better in the water. No paddle strokes have to be wasted in turning the canoe back on course, which keeps the speed and rhythm of your paddling intact.

Stamina of the Paddler

Let’s not forget that stamina is an integral part of how fast a canoe moves. Regardless of how fast and efficient a paddler may be, everyone tires eventually.

If a paddler has pushed well beyond their energy limits, they will undoubtedly reduce their speeds. It’s very difficult to keep up a steady, up tempo pace for the entirety of a paddling trip. Inevitably, the second leg of a paddler’s trek on the water will be slower than the first leg.

Plus, not every paddler has the same level of endurance. A canoe with a low stamina paddler will naturally move much more slowly than a canoe with a high stamina paddler.

Canoe Width

The majority of this article has been focused on the impact that a canoe’s length can have on its overall speed. However, it’s important to realize that a canoe’s width can influence speed as well.

Narrow canoes tend to be considerably faster because of how they’re able to cut through waves. The amount of frictional water drag that these canoes face is much less compared to wider canoes. Though, this increase in speed often comes at the expense of stability.

In contrast, a wider canoe holds the edge in stability, but cannot reach the maximum speeds of a narrow canoe. Again, this comes back to the problem of frictional drag.

Water Conditions

Lastly, it’s important to understand how the water conditions can influence canoeing speed.

Canoes are far more adept at speeding through calm waters compared to rough waters. In calm waters, canoes do not have to go through the extra effort of moving over the top of choppy waves. They can just skim across the surface of the water, with little to no resistance.

This also holds true of water currents. Water currents can either help or hurt a canoe’s speed, depending on which direction the current is moving. In the event that a canoe is moving downstream with the current, the canoe will move much faster. On the other hand, if the canoe is moving upstream, it will be very troublesome to achieve high speeds.

To learn more about the difficulty of paddling upstream, click over to How Hard Is It to Paddle Upstream? (Kayaking & Canoeing 101).

So in short, stay on calm waters if you want to paddle fast! Otherwise, you’re not likely to go at the speeds you desire.

Sources: 1 2

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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