Wildwater canoeing is a competitive discipline of canoeing in which kayaks or Canadian canoes are used to negotiate a stretch of river speedily. It is also called "whitewater racing" or "downriver" racing to distinguish it from whitewater slalom racing and whitewater rodeo or freestyle competition.
The object, simply stated, is to go from point A to point B on a river as quickly as possible. Typical wildwater venues consist of Class II - IV whitewater, in contrast to extreme racing, which takes place on more difficult streams. Match competitions generally consist of a classic and a sprint race. A classic course is 4–6 miles (6–10 km) in length or 10 to 35 minutes in duration, while the Sprint is between 500 and 750 meters and lasts around 2 minutes. Although there is some specialization, the vast majority of racers compete in both classic and sprint.
Competitors are placed in classes based on gender and boat type as follows:
- K1 - individual kayak, male
- K1W - individual kayak, female
- C1 - individual canoe, male
- C1W - individual canoe, female
- C2 - two-man canoe.
They are numbered within their class based on results from previous races and compete in reverse order (best paddler last), usually at one-minute intervals. To race successfully, paddlers must possess refined technical skill, as well as strength, endurance, aerobic capacity, and the ability to "read" whitewater.
Whitewater racing is also practiced by competing teams; each team is made by a group of three competitors belonging to the same class.
Whitewater racing started in Europe with the International Canoe Federation being formed and having the first World Championships in Switzerland in 1949. Since then, there has been a World Championships every two years. Since 2011 there is a sprint only world championships, with sprint and classic being contested every other (even) year.