By Kayaker Alex Matthews
FEW SUBJECTS ARE AS CONTROVERSIAL TO SOME SEA KAYAKERS AS THE CHOICE OF KAYAK RUDDER OR SKEG
The debate has raged on for decades fueled by misinformation, entrenched narrow-mindedness, and plain good old ignorance. In other words, we paddlers have had a really good time with it!
Let’s begin by defining some terms and concepts, and then examine the pros and cons of kayak skegs, kayak rudders, and foregoing either.
A well designed kayak should “weathercock” meaning that when subjected to the effects of wind, the boat will turn its bow into the wind. Any part of a kayak that extends out of the water will catch wind and therefore acts like a sail. The amount of this sail’s surface area, and its distribution, will have an effect on how the boat will respond in wind. Low profile kayaks have very little surface area above their waterlines and present “low windage” as there is little for wind to act upon. This is a natural advantage over bigger kayaks that present larger surface areas to gusting winds. Low windage designs by nature are low volume, so there is less room for cargo aboard, compared with a bigger kayak that sticks higher out of the water. The shape of the hull (especially at the stern), and where the paddler sits (weight distribution) also play key roles. Already we see that any kayak model represents a collection of compromises.
Another factor is that a kayak’s entry through the water at the bow is far smoother than the boat’s exit at the stern. The bow does a cleaner job of parting the water so that the boat can glide through. Turbulence is created in the kayak’s wake as water flows off the sides and stern of the boat after the kayak’s passage. It is in part this disparity between the bow and stern’s entry and exit that also creates weathercocking. The bow is better held in place by the smooth water, while the stern, surrounded by turbulence, is more easily pushed around by the wind. Because crosswinds or quartering winds have greater effect on the stern of a kayak, this is where force must be applied to remedy the situation.
Going it Alone – or “Paddling Like a Real Man”
Some folks love the simplicity of avoiding skegs and kayak rudders altogether as both rudder and skeg systems represent added complexity and greater chance of mechanical failure or leaking. There’s also something philosophically pleasing to the purist notion of controlling your craft with only paddles strokes and edging.
Some kayak designs (like the venerable Nordkapp HM) incorporate a large deep “V” hull section at the stern which functions as an integrated skeg. There are no moving parts to fail in this approach and no holes in the bottom of the boat that must be kept plugged. But while deep “V” hulls and pronounced keels keep a kayak tracking in a straight line like a freight train, and are far less subject to wind effects, they make turning the kayak far more difficult.
The end function of a kayak also plays a huge role in deciding on the desirability of a skeg or rudder. If I am looking for a highly maneuverable kayak for low mileage jaunts to destination play spots like surf zones, tidal rips, or rock gardens, I will seldom miss having a kayak skeg or kayak rudder. In these settings I will not be paddling great distances in a straight line. I will more likely be constantly changing course. Therefore I will gravitate to a boat that I can spin on a dime, happily sacrificing some tracking and some ability to hold a course, in favor of increased maneuverability.
It is especially on long mileage days that a paddler may begin to rethink his or her minimalist “no steering aids” policy. Because foregoing a kayak skeg or kayak rudder means that at some times you will definitely be working harder than your paddling buddies equipped with those aforementioned paddling crutches. You’ll have to sweep more often, and with more power, and you’ll have to hold your kayak on edge for extended periods in order to compensate for wind or currents. The reward for all this extra work will be obvious when a paddling partner’s kayak rudder or skeg malfunctions. The chance to smugly tell a friend “I told you so” is a wonderful thing.
Drop it! – the kayak skeg that is
A kayak skeg is a retractable blade that drops out of a compartment fitted in the keel, toward the stern of a kayak. While the kayak skeg blade cannot pivot from side to side in the horizontal plane, it is adjustable up and down in the vertical plane. Adjustment of the kayak skeg depth is most commonly achieved via a slider control mounted by the paddler’s thigh. A cable or rope connects the slider to the kayak skeg blade, allowing fine control of kayak skeg depth.
Kayak skegs work by allowing the paddler to fine tune the amount of surface area that the kayak skeg blade presents in the water. It is the depth of deployment of the kayak skeg (trimmed as needed from the cockpit) which will dictate the degree of effect that the kayak skeg will have. By lowering or raising the blade, a kayaker can balance out the forces of wind or current on his or her boat. Because, as we saw earlier, it’s the stern that is pushed around by conditions more than the bow of a kayak, dropping a kayak skeg better “pins” the stern in place. The ability to fine tune the depth of the kayak skeg is very effective in balancing out the boat’s tendency to turn into the wind. The general rule of thumb is:
- To turn downwind or maintain a course down wind – drop the kayak skeg all way down. This will “pin the stern” and cause the rest of the boat to pivot around that point, ending with the bow pointing downwind.
- To turn or hold a course directly into the wind – retract the kayak skeg fully. Since a kayak’s normal tendency is to turn into the wind, let the boat do its thing and leave the skeg control alone.
- For Crosswinds or quartering winds, the skeg should be partially lowered as needed. It is really easy to make micro adjustments on the fly with a kayak skeg’s slider control to achieve the most neutral handling possible. While it is still necessary to actively paddle a skeg-equipped boat, using edging and sweep strokes to maintain course, a kayak skeg does a very good job of balancing a boat’s windage.
A kayak skeg is a great aid to better boat handling in windy conditions. While it’s very subjective, when compared with a rudder equipped boat, some sea kayakers would also say that a skegged boat generates a greater feeling of “direct connection” between kayak and paddler.
Aesthetically, the clean upswept stern of a kayak skeg boat is awfully hard to beat. The classic shape of a sleek kayak, unencumbered by a clunky looking kayak rudder hanging off the back, is truly a beautiful sight.
Maybe you don’t need a Kayak Rudder… but it helps!
A kayak rudder, in contrast to a drop skeg, pivots side to side, controlled by foot pedals that connect to the rudder via cables. This setup allows a paddler to very effectively steer the boat with his or her feet, without the need to interrupt or modify his or her forward stroke, so all energy can be poured into driving the kayak forward. The result is a system that maximizes a kayaker’s potential for speed and distance.
In a rudder-equipped boat, the type of foot pedal used is critical. In older models, a sliding pedal was often the norm. “Sliders” have 2 major drawbacks: the first is that because the sliding pedal is anchored to the rudder via a long length of cable (and sometimes webbing) there is a large amount of flex in the system. The result is a very mushy feeling pedal that is a very poor surface for pushing against for optimal leg drive when paddling forward aggressively or bracing. The second problem with the sliding pedal is even more disconcerting: in the event of a cable breaking, the foot pedal will slide forward unanchored providing no support for the paddler’s foot whatsoever. The other pedal still connected to the kayak rudder will also slide forward if weighted, cranking the kayak rudder to that side – a dire situation should it occur in challenging conditions.
Newer style pedals are securely fixed in place for rock solid foot bracing, but pivot (or have a portion of the pedal that hinges) for rudder control.
Typically, sea kayak rudders can be flipped up onto the stern deck for storage when not in use. Mounting the kayak rudder at the very end of the stern solves the problem of being able to retract the blade for landing, and means that no kayak skeg box bisects valuable storage room in the stern hatch, but the position is less than ideal. By placing the kayak rudder so far aft (hanging off the back of the boat in fact), it is rendered far less effective because even in small waves the stern of a kayak will lift free of the water and the rudder blade will momentarily catch nothing but air. Only once it submerges again will it again provide direction control.
Surf skis use “under-stern” rudders that are well forward of the stern end of the boat. This placement provides better response and keeps the blade biting even in large swell. Unfortunately this setup precludes retracting the rudder as it is fixed in position under the boat, which would be of little value in a loaded sea kayak since it would be next to impossible to land without destroying the under stern rudder itself. So although it’s not perfect, the stern mounted flip-up sea kayak rudder remains an effective option. At least until someone comes up with a really good retractable under-stern rudder.
Where distance, efficiency, and racing are concerned rudders trump kayak skegs. Kayak rudder are also vastly superior to kayak skegs in following seas. The ability to steer the boat and prevent it from broaching by actively trimming the rudder with one’s feet allows a paddler to keep powering forward, catching waves and linking rides. While those without kayak rudders will be struggling to hold course, and slowing themselves down due to the need to rudder with their paddles. It’s fun for “ruddered” paddlers to explain this advantage to their skegged brethren, but generally the skeggers are too far behind to hear.
Debunking a few myths
A persistent myth is that kayak skegs are vastly more reliable than rudders. This is not my experience. I’ve found that both systems can go wrong, and both benefit from careful routine inspection and maintenance. This classic complaint likely stems from the old slider style footrests that were fitted in so many rudder equipped boats. Then, a broken rudder cable was pretty catastrophic. Now with the new generation of fixed kayak rudder pedals, a broken cable is far less of an issue.
Skegs routinely get stuck when a pebble jams the skeg box, cables kink when a paddler tries to force a pebble free, and the union where the kayak skeg cable connects to the skeg box is often a source of leaks. Having drilled a hole right in the bottom of the kayak to accommodate the kayak skeg cable, it is difficult to keep it plugged for good.
Skegs are likely less prone to damage in the event of heavy collisions, since they are tucked up out of the way, rather than mounted on the stern like most sea kayak rudder. But the reality for most is that they will very seldom collide with other paddlers, or objects, heavily enough to seriously damage a rudder.
My favorite bit of nonsense has to be the “rudders prevent people from learning how to paddle properly” refrain. Why would the option of an additional and really effective tool prevent a paddler from excelling? I don’t know. In fact, to compete and win at the Olympics in any kayaking event other than whitewater slalom, you will need a kayak with a rudder. And the Olympic team paddlers seem to know how to kayak fairly well.
Comparing Apples and Oranges
Ultimately it’s a little silly for a sea kayaker to be dogmatic about one approach to paddling over another. I kayak recreationally for enjoyment. I’m not usually racing, and so my criterion is solely: “how much fun am I having”?
Happily, I am spoiled and able to own 2 sea kayaks. I have a lower volume skeg boat that I use for play-oriented day trips. And a larger volume, rudder equipped sea kayak that I use for touring and downwind runs. But quite often, I take the skeg boat touring, and I play in the ruddered kayak. Why? Because I love both kayaks – they each have something different to offer, and I enjoy that difference.
The only wrong way to paddle is one that will cause you injury. The only rule is to have fun and stay safe. So try every boat that you can, and avoid entrenched opinions and especially those who can’t wait to tell you what’s right for you, and what’s wrong.