By Alex Matthews
One decision that every paddler confronts is the choice of: ‘rudder or skeg?’ The pro skeg faction tends to be the most overtly vocal, with some skeg aficionados being downright damning in their condemnation of rudders. But which is better?
Let’s begin by defining some terms and concepts, and then examine the pros and cons of skegs, rudders, and foregoing either.
The prescribed thinking is that a well-designed sea 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 above 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.
In the best kayaks, weathercocking is a relatively modest effect, and can be overcome with strokes, edging, and/or the use of a skeg or rudder.
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.
Note that a boat that automatically turns downwind (without skeg or rudder engaged) is said to ‘lee cock’. This is an extremely undesirable trait in a sea kayak, as it makes turning the boat into the wind in stormy conditions truly onerous. This leads quickly to frustration, potential exhaustion, and can even be dangerous in some situations. The ability to turn in to the wind is essential. If your kayak fights you doing this, or precludes it altogether in big winds, then you are at risk.
The Purist Approach
Some folks love the simplicity of avoiding skegs and 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 have incorporated 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, 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 skeg or 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 ‘tracking’ (the hull’s tendency to run straight and hold a straight 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 skeg or 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 stroke with your paddle far 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 rudder or skeg malfunctions. The chance to smugly tell a friend ‘I told you so’ is a wonderful thing, but sadly for the ‘no-steering-aids-on-my-boat’ paddler, serious equipment failures with rudders and skegs happen disappointingly rarely. So all in all, it’s a little hard to make a compelling case to most paddlers that they shouldn’t have a rudder or skeg.
Drop it! – The Skeg That Is
A skeg is a retractable blade that drops out of a compartment fitted in the keel, toward the stern of a kayak. While the 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 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 skeg blade, allowing fine control of skeg depth.
Skegs work by allowing the paddler to fine tune the amount of surface area that the skeg blade presents in the water. It is the depth of deployment of the skeg (trimmed as needed from the cockpit) that will dictate the degree of effect that the 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 skeg better “pins” the stern in place. The ability to fine tune the depth of the 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 skeg all the 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 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 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 skeg does a very good job of balancing a boat’s windage.
The skeg in its ‘Up’ position - fully retracted up into the hull
A 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. In reality though, I think that it’s just a slightly different style of paddling, and both are equally valid and rewarding.
Aesthetically, the clean upswept stern of a skeg-equipped boat is awfully hard to beat. The classic shape of a sleek kayak, unencumbered by a clunky looking rudder hanging off the back, is truly a beautiful sight.
Maybe You Don’t Need a Rudder… But It Sure Helps!
A 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 very efficient system that maximizes a kayaker’s potential for speed and distance.
A typical sea kayak rudder
There are 2 basic design approaches for rudder pedals – I’ll call them: ‘sliders’ and ‘fixed pivoters’.
The first approach uses pedals that slide back and forth in a track when moving the rudder side to side. In older model kayaks, a sliding pedal was 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 as well) 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, bracing, or rolling. And pushing hard off of only one foot (as one does on each stroke to optimize power and to benefit from leg drive), just serves to slide that pedal forward, providing no fixed point to push against. So with sliders, the paddler must work to maintain equal foot-pressure on both pedals much of the time.
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 rudder will also slide forward if weighted, cranking the rudder to that side – a dire situation should it occur in challenging conditions. While breaking a cable is extremely rare, it can happen.
The Sliding pedal glides fore and aft in its track
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. The pivoting style pedals solve the dilemmas inherent with ‘slider’ pedals, but they are a little more awkward to use, especially with bulky sandals or shoes. A greater ‘foot dexterity’ is required when pushing just the top of the pedal, as opposed to sliding the whole pedal forward.
The Fixed (toe control) rudder pedal
Typically, sea kayak rudders can be pulled up out of the water, into a vertical position, or flipped up onto the stern deck for storage, when not in use. Mounting the rudder at the very end of the stern solves the problem of being able to retract the blade for landing, and means that no skeg box bisects valuable storage room in the stern hatch, but the extreme aft position is less than ideal. By placing the 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 (narrow high performance sit on top kayaks developed for racing) use “under-stern” rudders that are well forward of the stern end of the boat (similar to a skeg’s location in fact). 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 extremely effective option. A couple of retractable under-stern rudder systems now exist, but so far they are a rarity.
Some rudder-equipped sea kayaks are designed from inception to only be paddled with the rudder down. These boats are sometimes known as ‘rudder-dependent’. Surf skis for example have fixed rudders, and are unmanageable without them. Since a rudder is such a powerful tool, designing a kayak around its use makes sense. These boats typically have a lot of rocker in the stern, making the back of the boat very loose. The rudder tames this looseness and results in great rudder-response and maneuverability when heading downwind in waves. Rudder-dependent designs maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of the rudder, but should the rudder become damaged, these boats perform poorly. And some are a real ‘handful’ without a functioning rudder. For this reason, extra care must be taken to ensure that the rudder is working well, and it is extremely important to avoid damaging any of the steering components.
Where distance, efficiency, and racing on the open ocean are concerned, rudders trump skegs. Rudders are also vastly superior to skegs in following seas. The ability to steer the boat and prevent it from wandering off course or broaching, simply by actively trimming the rudder with one’s feet allows a paddler to keep powering forward, catching waves and linking rides. While those without rudders will be struggling to hold course, and slowing themselves down due to the need to rudder with their paddles.
Debunking a Few Myths
A persistent myth is that 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, the pedals were mushy and you couldn’t push off of them for leg drive. And a broken rudder cable was pretty catastrophic (although rare). Now with the new generation of fixed rudder pedals, a broken cable is far less of an issue, and foot support is solid.
Skegs routinely get stuck when a pebble jams the skeg box, cables can kink when a paddler tries to force a pebble free, and the union where the skeg cable connects to the skeg box is a notorious source of leaks. Having drilled a hole through the bottom of the kayak to accommodate the skeg cable, it is difficult to keep it plugged and waterproof 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 rudders. 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 certainly don’t know why that would be the case.
Comparing Apples and Oranges
It’s really a little silly for sea kayakers to be dogmatic about one approach to paddling over another. Especially if the discussion is about someone else’s experience. I kayak recreationally for enjoyment. I’m rarely racing, and so my criterion is solely: ‘how much fun am I having’?
Happily, I am spoiled and able to own multiple sea kayaks. I have a lower volume skeg boat that I use for play-oriented day trips (what I do the vast majority of the time). And a larger volume, rudder-equipped sea kayak that I use for touring and downwind runs. But sometimes, I take the skeg boat touring, and I play in the ruddered kayak. Why? Because I appreciate both boats – they each have something different to offer, and I enjoy that difference.
And maybe that’s what we’re really seeing: a great many rudder-equipped kayaks are really optimized for multi-day touring. They are higher volume, for carrying gear. Many tend to be stiffer tracking for efficient long distance traveling. And they have a rudder so that the paddler’s energy is maximized for paddling forward and covering mileage.
While many skeg-equipped boats are lower volume, with more pronounced rocker for higher maneuverability, and greater play potential, albeit at the expense of forward efficiency.
In automotive terms, perhaps it’s fair to say that more skeg kayaks tend to be ‘sports cars’, while ruddered sea kayaks are more typically ‘highway cruisers’. Although this is a gross generalization, and many exceptions and overlap exist, there’s some truth to the notion. They tend to be slightly different tools for different jobs. For instance: while you could take your spouse and 2 small children on vacation in a high-performance 2-seater Italian sports car, it won’t lead to happiness. No – you’d be far happier in a Volvo station wagon for that. One car’s not necessarily ‘better’ – they’re just different and better at different things. Likewise, you can do extended trips in small volume, highly rockered sea kayaks that don’t tend to go straight very efficiently, but you will work harder, and have fewer creature comforts than if you took a bigger boat. Choose your priorities!
Ultimately, both rudders and skegs are great – try both, enjoy each approach with an open mind, and think about how you plan to use your kayak, and what your goals are. Then go with whichever kayak best suits you.