A Brief History of Canoe Polo
The first description of the game of 'canoe polo' is attributed to Oliver J Cock MBE. His book, ‘You and Your Canoe’ was published in the UK in the mid-1950’s and mentions the similar game he conceived just after the end of the Second World War:
“Mr Cock was living near the river in Hambledon-on-Thames in around 1947. He used to go kayaking on the river with friends, all being members of the local club, Chalfont Park Canoe Club.
At that time, paddlers used folding kayaks (made out of canvas and wood) on the river. One day, while sitting in his kayak, he saw a tennis ball floating by, picked it up and threw it at somebody with the intention of splashing him. It was vigorously thrown back at him with the same intention. That soon got the two of them throwing the ball back and forth at each other. The tennis ball was at some point replaced with a football - making people wet, with splashes.
Two teams of players were formed and the width of the river was conveniently used to form the ends of the playing field. Shrubs and imaginary lines on the opposite banks used as goalposts. That was when, to quote Oliver Cock, 'the game of canoe polo started in Britain'.”
Reza Ali, canoe polo historian and enthusiast, “The Origins of Canoe Polo in the World” 1992.
Oliver Cock was part of a British Canoe Union committee set up to test canoeing proficiency, as well as coaching the British Slalom Team in 1948 and being President of the British Dragon Boat Association. He finally retired in the year 2000.
Whilst introducing a ball to paddling sport had in fact been happening in various forms around the world (mostly for novelty), this video from the Maidenhead Watermans Regatta 1949 is a striking and amusing example of rules being formed and enforced:
"There are few more enjoyable sights than seeing other people get a ducking"
"You can't take the ball to the goal by boat"
River Football (1949), British Pathé
In 1966, the design and development of a new canoe for training and teaching paddlers in swimming pools meant the game of canoe polo could really take off.
Bert Keeble, an Essex-based boat maker, was asked to design a kayak without sharp ends to avoid ruining pool sides. He came up with a simple wooden craft with the National Coach at the time. He tried it out in a pool at Crystal Palace, and it turned out to be reasonably suitable for its purpose.
Later on, Alan Byde, inspired by Keeble’s craft, designed a similar boat made from fibreglass called the Baths Advances Trainer canoe (BAT). That name stuck, and the design became more and more popular because of its versatility.
In 1970, the National Canoe Exhibition Committee put a display about the relatively unknown game of canoe polo into the Crystal Palace Canoe Exhibition to share it with a wider audience. From the exhibition, a committee was formed to look after and develop the game into a competitive sport with new rules and regulations.
"A sport where strength counts just as much as skill"
"Apparently, if a player gets drowned he's disqualified"
Bat Polo (1970), British Pathé
By the 1980’s canoe polo closely mimicked the game that we play today.
- Most other nations used water polo goals which floated on the water, but the British used 1m x 1m boards suspended 2m above the water.
- Players used their hands for dribbling, passing and scoring, although some occasionally used their paddles. The goalkeeper had to raise their paddle to block the shots thrown at the suspended board.
- Tackling an opponent who had the ball was allowed, with a flat handed push against their upper arm or torso.
- The pitch was about 35m long and 20m wide.
- All players wore compulsory buoyancy aids and helmets, but the use of faceguards only became compulsory in 1992!
The establishment of an international set of rules in 1990 paved the way to the first ever European Championships held by the BCU Canoe Polo Committee in 1993 under the backing of the ICF. It was held in the Ponds Forge Pool, Sheffield, and ran a Men’s category and a Women’s category. Germany took home gold in both.
In 1994 the first World Championships was held in the same pool as the Europeans the year prior. There were the same two categories of competition, and Australia left with gold in both.
Footage from the first ever World Championships 1994
Archived by Reza Ali
Great Britain have been a dominant force in the sport, especially throughout the early years winning many titles in both categories. The GB Women won their first gold in Australia in 1996 and the Men took gold for the first time in Brazil in 2000. You can find out more in our GB history section.
The Modern Game
Canoe Polo became a World Games sport in 2005 and continues to expand around the world. >60 nations now enter the qualification process for the world championships. To become a World Championship winning team truly means to reach the athletic pinnacle of skill, fitness, strength, agility and teamwork.
This brief history was compiled by Chris Barker, Beth Howard and David McBay.
If you want to further your knowledge of the history of our sport we suggest you follow these links:
Canoe Polo - 'Conserving our Roots & Heritage' run by Reza Ali