Water sports

The term “water sports” covers all sporting and/or recreational activities practised on or in water by means of a navigational equipment, regardless of the aquatic environment or the body of water in question (ocean, sea, river, lake, etc.). The French term for water sports, “nautisme”, derives from the adjective “nautique”(nautical), which relates to navigation. The term “water sports” therefore refers to sailing and boating practices and techniques using different navigational equipment: boats, kayaks, floats, etc. In this it differs from sports and leisure activities known as “aquatic sports”, in which no navigation equipment is used (open water swimming, diving, water polo, canyoning etc.). For example, water aerobics would be an “aquatic sport”, while water skiing would be a “water sport”.

We can divide water sports into subcategories depending on the techniques involved: boat-based activities (sailing, motorboating, rafting, etc.), traction-based activities (water skiing, kitesurfing, etc.) and surf-based activities (surfing, bodyboarding, etc.).

The most widespread water sport by far is pleasure boating, be it in sailboats or, to a greater degree, motorboats, despite the average cost of a craft, which remains high. The age of the practice, its friendly nature and the fact that it is relatively easy to learn (in the case of motor boats) largely explain this global success. Surf-based sports (surfing, kitesurfing, bodyboarding etc.) are becoming increasingly widespread. They are popular among younger generations due to the adaptability of the equipment in terms of their use and handling, their limited cost, and a certain associated fashion value.

The water sports sector therefore takes many forms. It encompasses a very wide range of motivations on the part of those who practice them. They include leisure activities (recreational fishing, for example), tourist practices (e.g., canoe treks, standup paddleboarding), sports (regattas, offshore races etc.), and even a way of life for some (circumnavigation, living on a boat etc.).

In a broader sense, water sports encompass the whole sector rather than just the activities themselves, i.e., training and supervision on the one hand, and the design, manufacture and marketing of equipment enabling water sports activities on the other.

Types of water sports (diagram by Nicolas Bernard; Bernard, 2016)



  • Bernard Nicolas (dir.), 2006, Le nautisme: acteurs, pratiques et territoires. Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 332 p.
  • Bernard Nicolas, 2016, Géographie du nautisme. Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 341 p.