Condensed British Canoeing Canoe Polo Rules

This is a relatively brief run through of the rules of canoe polo, according to Paddle UK. For a more basic description more suited to newcomers to the sport, see the introduction page.

These rules are meant as a guide only, and are best suited to players wanting to build up a reasonable knowledge of the rules of play, or people beginning to referee. Believe me; these rules are far shorter, and hopefully more accessible, than the official ones (which weigh in at about 24 pages of small type)! If it isn't included here, you are unlikely to need to know it for everyday play.

However, please keep in mind that this version of the rules is not completely comprehensive - that isn't the idea of them. For a completely thorough description, see the full rules in the Canoe Polo Rulebook.


The Pitch

The pitch should be 23 x 35 metres (this is often relaxed for lower leagues).

The side lines and goal lines of the pitch are marked by floating ropes, or the sides of the pool in smaller pools.

The pitch is split into several areas - there should be 6 metre markers, 4.5 metre markers and halfway markers. This results in a pitch like below:

Substitutes should wait in their own substitutes' area. They can pass through the 'no waiting' area, but shouldn't stay there. Players on the pitch can paddle round the back of the goal across the full width of the pitch.


Goals are suspended 2 metres above the water. They are 1.5 metres x 1 metre, and they should have a net and red stripes on the poles.

The Ball

Men use size 5, Women use size 4 and Juniors use size 3 water polo balls.


There can be up to eight officials:

  • 2 x referees
  • 2 x timekeepers
  • 1 x scorekeeper
  • 2 x goal line judges
  • 1 x scrutineer

Normally, one of the timekeepers is also the scorekeeper, and there are normally no goal line judges or scrutineer in lower leagues.

Referees should operate a 'leading and trailing' system, where all active players on the pitch should be between the two referees at any time.


Each team has five players on the pitch and a maximum of three substitutes. There must be at least 3 players from each team on the pitch to begin the game.

Everyone should be in the same colour kit - i.e. same colour boat deck, spraydeck, helmet, buoyancy aid and shirts. (In lower leagues, only buoyancy aid colour really matters, though player should try their best to have matching coloured kit).

Each player should have a different number from 1-15 on their buoyancy aid (and helmet in higher leagues).


There are many specifications concerning kit. See the full rules for the full list. Here are just a few of the more important ones:

  • All players must wear a shirt which covers the shoulders and upper arm.
  • Helmets must be CE approved.
  • Paddles must be of an approved thickness.
  • No jewellery of any type may be worn.
  • Players can exchange their kit whenever they want with another team member or from their substitutes' area.

Game Time

The minimum playing time is 6 minutes each way, and the maximum is 10. Play ends at the sound of the timekeeper's horn/whistle, not at the referee's whistle (The only exception is if a goal penalty shot has been given before the timekeeper's signal, but has not yet been taken. In this case play ends after the ball hits the water or rebounds back into play after the shot). Half time lasts at least 1 minute, after which the teams change ends.

General Game Rules

The referees should be in complete control of the game - what they say goes. They give signals to inform you of their decision. These are shown later on.

Free throws are indirect - you cannot shoot directly at goal.

Free shots are direct - you may shoot directly at goal (you do not have to).

For both free throws and free shots, the player taking the throw/shot must present the ball by holding it above their head. If you do not do this you may be penalised with a free throw to the opposition.

A free throw or shot may be taken either at the site of the foul or where the ball lies when the foul is committed. This is at the discretion of referee, who will decide which position best advantages the attacking team.

Players have five seconds in possession of the ball. This is explained in more detail later.


The referee can give several sanctions (punishments) for illegal play. These are briefly described here.

Two obvious sanctions are a free throw and free shot (explained above).

The referee can also give cards. These cards have varying meanings depending on colour.

Green Card - Sent off for 2 minutes. Green cards are given for repeated minor offences, unnecessary verbal communication with the referee and unsporting behaviour.

Yellow Card - Sent off for 2 minutes. Yellow cards are given to any player already on a green card and repeating the same offence. They are also given outright for abusive or foul language, repeatedly disputing the referees' decisions, or deliberate and dangerous play.

Red Card - Player sent off for the remainder of the game and banned from the whole of the next game. Tournament organisers have the right to exclude the player from the rest of the tournament and bring the player before the Paddle UK Polo Committee. Red cards are given to any player receiving two yellow cards, to a player disputing a yellow card or to a player who does not change their attitude after receiving a yellow card. They are also given outright for a personal attack on a player or referee or for repeated foul and abusive behaviour.

Exclusion Red - Player sent off for the rest of the tournament and will be reported to Paddle UK Polo Comittee. It is for extremely dangerous play and may result in a ban.

A further sanction is a goal penalty shot (penalty). This is given for and deliberate or dangerous foul on a player shooting within the 6 metre area, or any foul on a player about to obtain a near certain goal (by shooting or passing to a player in a position to do so).

In a goal penalty shot, all players from both teams must retreat beyond half way (note that there is no goalkeeper). One attacking player remains positioned on the 6 metre line, and is thrown the ball by the referee. On the referee's whistle, play restarts, and the attacker has five seconds to shoot, during which he cannot be touched.

Starting The Game

The teams line up with their kayaks touching the goal line (or the pool side in a small pool). One referee throws the ball into the middle of the pitch and blows their whistle. One player from each team is allowed to attempt for the ball. All other players must be at least 3 metres away from the body of their own player.

If one team starts before the whistle, or other players are too close to their own player who is trying to win the ball, this is a start infringement. A start infringement signal is given, and a free throw is given to the opposition.

Ball Out Of Play

If the ball touches the plane of the side line, it is out of play. Side lines move with the ropes (if ropes are being used). A free throw is given to the team that didn't have possession, from the place the ball went out. You must take the throw from where the ball left the pitch.

If the ball touches the goal line, it is also out of play. The goal lines move with the plane of the face of the goal (see diagram below). If the defending team was last to touch the ball, a free throw from either corner is given to the attacking team. If the attacking team was last to touch the ball, then a free throw from the goal line is given to the defending team. The throw can be taken from anywhere along the goal line.

The ball is not in play until it travels 1 metre horizontally - if someone touches the ball before it has gone this far, they are penalised.

You can not purposely bounce the ball off another player or their kit and off the pitch to get a sideline or corner throw. This gets you a green card.

Goal face illuatration

In the above diagram, the red region is out of play, and the blue is in play.

The ball is also out of play if it hits a rope suspending a goal. A goal line throw or corner is given as normal.

If the ball hits an object (like the ceiling or a water slide), the ball is given to the team who did not have it when it was thrown against the obstruction. The thinking is this - ceilings and obstructions are always there, so if you are silly enough to throw the ball against them, tough luck! (The only exceptions are things like overhead wires which can't easily be seen).

Scoring A Goal

The whole ball must cross the face of the goal for a goal to count.

After a goal is scored the ball must be presented by the attacking team on the centre line. The attacking team cannot cross the centre line until the referee has blown their whistle to restart play. Play can be restarted when at least 3 defending players are back in their half, or when 10 seconds have elapsed.


Substitutions can take place at any time during the game. A player may be substituted once they and all their kit have completely left the pitch at their own goal line. The only exception to this rule is when substituting a capsized player who has left their kayak - this player may be substituted at the next break in play as long as all their kit has been removed from the pitch.

Play does not stop for a capsized player unless they are causing an obstruction or are in a dangerous position.

An illegal substitution is penalised with a yellow card - the team play with one less player for the duration of the yellow card.

Illegal Use Of Paddle

Easily summarised - if it is dangerous or unfair on another player, it is illegal. A free shot is given to the victim's team. The following things are illegal:

  • Touching an opponent's body with your paddle.
  • Playing the ball when it is within arm's reach of an opponent and they are trying to reach it.
  • Putting your paddle within arms reach of an opponent when they have the ball in their hands (goalkeepers are excluded from this rule as long as their paddle is not moved and it is not dangerous).
  • Pushing off another player's boat with your paddle or restricting another player's movement with your paddle - technically this comes under illegal holding (see later).
  • Playing an opponent's paddle with your own.
  • Throwing your paddle.

Illegal Possession

A player is in possession when:

  • They have the ball in their hands (even if they are capsized).
  • They can reach a ball lying on the water with their hands (unless they are capsized).
  • They are balancing the ball on their paddle.

A player has lost possession when the ball travels one metre horizontally from their hand, or they pass it to another player.

Illegal possession is penalised by a free shot (except when someone forgets to present the ball - this is a free throw). Illegal possession is when: -

  • A player is in sole possession for longer than five seconds.
  • A player moves their kayak with paddles or their hands when the ball is resting on their deck.
  • A player fails to present the ball above their head when taking a free throw or free shot.

The five second rule does not apply to two players in joint possession.

Illegal Hand Tackle

You can hand tackle a player in possession of the ball by pushing them with one hand on their back, upper arm or side.

This is illegal when the tackle doesn't make contact with the back, upper arm or side, or when the tackle endangers the player. (Pushing a player against a boat or poolside is dangerous; pushing a player against a floating side/goal line is not.)

Illegal Kayak Tackle/Jostle

A kayak tackle is moving your kayak against an opponents kayak to win possession of the ball.

A jostle is moving your kayak within the 6 metre area to gain position (when not trying to get the ball).

Both an illegal kayak tackle and an illegal jostle are penalised with a free shot.

Kayak tackles are illegal when: -

  • Contacting the body of the opposing player (not including their arms)
  • Continuing paddling into an opponents spray deck after a legal tackle.
  • Any tackle which is by momentary contact and between 80 and 100 degrees to the opponents kayak - i.e. hitting the opponent's kayak hard in the side.
  • Tackling a player who is not within 3 metres of the ball.
  • Tackling a player who is not competing for the ball
  • Moving or unbalancing a goalkeeper (see later)

Jostles are illegal when: -

  • Moving a player by more than a metre (in one movement) whilst jostling
  • Jostling a player outside of the 6m area (including behind the goal)
  • The jostle is hard like a kayak tackle.


Obstruction is technically described as illegal screening. Obstruction is where a player actively impedes the movement of another player. Actively means that the player committing the foul is making paddle strokes or that their kayak is moving. Obstruction does not apply when both players are competing for the ball, they are jostling within the 6 metre area or one player is in possession of the ball. The victim's team is awarded a free shot.

Illegal screens are often poorly refereed, mainly due to a misunderstanding of what is really quite a simple rule. The easiest way to look at it is this: - if you were a player and someone purposely got in your way when you were going somewhere, you wouldn't be happy, right? This is obstruction. For a more thorough description of Illegal screen, see the full rules.

Illegal Holding/Leaning

These offences are punishable by a free shot. This falls into three areas: -

  • You are not allowed to impede/hold on to a player with your body or kit.
  • You are not allowed to propel yourself using another player, their kit or the playing area equipment (including the pool sides or floating ropes, usually referred to as 'pushing off the side/boat').
  • You are not allowed to use another player, their kit or the playing area equipment for support (generally known as 'leaning').

Foul On The Goalkeeper

Goalkeepers have special privileges. A goalkeeper is defined as the defender most directly under the goal in a position to defend it with their paddle. The goalkeeper must be facing onto the pitch. Note that a player cannot be defined as the goalkeeper if their own team is in possession on the ball - if their own team has the ball they are treated like any other player on the pitch. A 'foul on the keeper' occurs when: -

  • An attacker moves or unbalances a goalkeeper with their kayak or body.
  • An attacker pushes a defender onto the goalkeeper, thereby moving the goalkeeper. This is not illegal if the defender has reasonable time to prevent this contact.
  • An attacker impedes a defender from taking up a position as a goalkeeper.

Note that if attackers are pushed on to the goalkeeper by defenders, and they do not have a chance to prevent the contact, there is no foul.

If any of these offences are committed, the goalkeeper receives a free shot.

Unsporting Behaviour

If a referee deems the behaviour of any player unsporting, they may penalise that player with a green card (or worse if sufficiently unsporting or dangerous). Examples of unsporting behaviour are:-

  • Committing an infringement during a break in play.
  • Stopping a capsized player from righting themselves (they must get their head and both shoulders above water before they can be tackled again).
  • Interfering with another player's equipment including moving it away from them.
  • Deliberately delaying play (e.g. throwing the ball away).
  • Dissent, retaliation or foul language.


A referee may decide to play advantage if a team would directly benefit from play continuing after a foul. This can only occur if neither referee has blown his whistle. The referee can still take action against an infringing player at the next break of play.

Referees should also signal play on if players mistakenly believe there has been an offence.

Referee's Ball

A referee's ball is given if two players are in joint possession for more than five seconds, or if play is stopped through no fault of either team when neither team is in possession.

One player from each team faces the side of the pool, one metre apart, with their paddles in the water not between the kayaks and their hands on their decks. No other player is permitted within three metres of the place where the ball will enter the water.

The referee throws the ball between the players whilst blowing the whistle. Players cannot touch the ball until it hits the water. The referee's ball can be retaken if the ball is thrown unfairly. See the diagram below of a referee's ball.

Referee's Ball

Extra Time/Shootouts

If a result is required, Golden Goal extra time lasting between 3 and 10 minutes each way is played. Any team scoring a goal during this time is deemed the winner.

Golden Goal will continue until there is a result.

Following the revision of the rulers effective from 2019 biting opponents is now allowed.

Referees Signals

Start Infringement
Start Infringement
Half/Full Time
Half/Full Time
Disallowed Goal
Disallowed Goal
Sideline Throw/Corner
Sideline Throw/Corner
Goal Line Throw
Goal Line Throw
Time Out
Time Out
Referee's Ball
Referee's Ball
Illegal Tackle/Jostle
Illegal Kayak Tackle
Illegal Holding
/Illegal Hand Tackle
Five Seconds
Five Seconds/Possession
Illegal Use Of Paddle
Illegal Use Of Paddle
Play On/Advantage
Play On/Advantage
Free Throw
Free Throw
Free Shot
Free Shot
Goal Penalty Shot
Goal Penalty Shot
Showing Cards
Showing Cards
Unsporting Behaviour

I hope that these rules have been helpful, and haven't put you off refereeing!

I have attempted to write this guide in a user friendly manner, so there is every chance that I may have interpreted some rules differently to other referees, or that I have missed areas that some referees deem important. I would like to stress that this version of the rules is aimed at providing an accessible version of the full rules - if there is any doubt, the official British Canoeing version of the rules should be taken as the correct one.

Any mistakes are entirely mine, and if you spot any errors or omissions, please contact me using the e-mail address below and I will endeavour to correct them. Do not hesitate to contact me if you need anything clarifying. I would also appreciate any comments with regard to making this version more accessible or easier to read.


                                          SEPTEMBER 2005 BY M.C.G.