Okay, I’ll be honest. I came up in the world of sea kayaking in the Great Lakes, indoctrinated in the cult of British sea kayaking. Every single one of the paddlers I wanted to be when I grew up were firmly set against kayak rudders. As a younger man, I was steeped in the ways of rudder hatred, but what is really the problem with using a kayak rudder?

The case against kayak rudders

I’ve heard all the arguments, including: rudders are dangerous in rescues, they break when you need them most, moving foot pedals makes it impossible to brace, rudders inhibit proper skills development, rudders contribute to loose moral virtue and the increase of gout. Rudders are bad. They will give you smelly feet.

In the intervening years, I’ve paddled some fine ruddered kayaks and most of those criticisms have fallen by the wayside. I no longer fear capsize from an abruptly shifting foot brace, I’ve learned to inspect rudder cables to make sure they won’t part at an inopportune moment, and I no longer see ruddered kayaks as a source of moral decay. In fact, I’ve warmed to rudders considerably. I’m happy to admit ruddered kayaks are faster when racing, more efficient on long expeditions and helpful to beginners who are just getting the hang of paddling.

Despite this change of heart, I still think rudders are a poor choice in a versatile sea kayak paddled in a full range of ocean conditions, from surf to tide races. You see, rudders have one big problem you just can’t get around. The real problem with rudders is trim.

Let me explain.

Imagine yourself kayaking off the shore of a beautiful tropical island. Palm trees sway in the breeze and a steady wind pushes your boat toward the beach. You start paddling forward, steering a course toward a headland of volcanic rock. And your kayak begins turning into the wind.

What the heck is going on? It’s simple. If the wind blows you sideways, you’re going to drift sideways. If you start paddling forward, the bow of your kayak gets stuck in the water and the stern keeps on drifting sideways. Presto! Weathercocking.

Paddling with a skeg

Now, if you are in a kayak with a skeg, you’ll want to slide that skeg down a little bit at a time until you can point at the headland again. That skeg mechanically changes the bow-to-stern trim of your kayak. In essence, it makes the stern sit deeper in the water and locks it in place, so it can’t skid out. You could do the same thing by strapping a cinder block to the back deck of your kayak, the skeg just makes it a little easier.

Here you are now, happily paddling along, pointed just where you want to go, skeg in perfect position. Great. What happens if you decide to push the skeg all the way down? Trouble. Why?  Because if you put that skeg all the way down, your kayak will start to turn away from the wind. The trim will be too far toward the stern. You’ll start heading for certain destruction on the black rocks of the headland, complete with wailing and gnashing of teeth.

With the skeg fully down you thrash away on the downwind side of the boat, desperately trying to claw off the fatal lee shore. To no avail. Slowly, inexorably, your bow points toward the pointy rocks. Your mind is filled with visions of smashed fiberglass and sodden sleeping bags. Yikes. Better pull up the skeg a little bit.

The real problem with rudders on kayaks

Here’s where we get to the real problem with rudders. A rudder, on the stern of the boat, fully deployed into the water, acts like a skeg all the way down.

Think about it. If a fully deployed skeg makes your boat turn uncontrollably downwind in breezy conditions, won’t a rudder do the same? Of course, it will. If the wind is mild you can counteract this by kicking a little upwind rudder. But if the wind is really howling this won’t work. You’ll find yourself blowing downwind no matter how hard you fight it.

Surely there is a way to fix this problem. Of course, there is. If you want your ruddered kayak to paddle properly in all wind conditions, you need to adjust the trim of the boat so that it is balanced in the wind when the rudder is down.

Finding the sweet spot

To do this, you’ll have to move the seat forward until you find the sweet spot allowing the rudder to turn the boat upwind or downwind regardless of the conditions. You’ll probably need to play around with it for a little while. Maybe move the seat forward an inch and then take the boat out in a real howler to see what happens. Then maybe move it forward another inch. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you can turn upwind or downwind with the rudder regardless of the wind speed.

When you get to this point, you’ll have achieved perfect balance—and a kayak that is completely uncontrollable in the wind if the rudder isn’t in the water.

Now you’ve done it. You’ve shifted the trim of the boat so far forward the rudder must be in the water at all times. If it isn’t, your boat will weathercock so fast it’ll give you whiplash. If you are out in any kind of wind at all you had better have the rudder down, because if you don’t you’re in a pickle, clawing away as hard to fight weathercocking as you were before trying to keep off the rocks.

To be sure, aiming uncontrollably away from the pointy rocks is way better than aiming uncontrollably toward them, but neither option is quite as nice as a boat going where you want it, when you want it to. A kayak with a skeg can be trimmed to be neutral in the wind. A kayak with a rudder must be trimmed to paddle either horrendously in the worst conditions, or horrendously when the rudder is up. Not much middle ground.

When does a kayak rudder work? When does it not?

Rudders work great on specialized kayaks intended to be paddled with the rudder in the water at all times, like surfskis and racing kayaks. They don’t do a good job at balancing a versatile kayak in the wind in a broad range of conditions. If you want to race, by all means, paddle a kayak with a rudder. If you want to explore the sea in all its manifold dimensions, stick with a skeg, and avoid the real problem with rudders.

This article was first published in Issue 57 of Paddling Magazine. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.


A debate as old as whether pineapple belongs on pizza. Stick with a skeg and avoid the real problem with rudders, according to author Brian Day. | Feature Photo: Matt Baldelli

16 COMMENTS

  1. The weathercocking on a boat is actually a safety feature…if the power dies, the boat turns its bow into the waves/wind instead of being swept sideways. A rudder can be manipulated through a whole range of engagements beyond the extreme black and white situtations referenced in this article. A rudder can help you hold a course, and when coupled with proper paddling positions and body shifting, can enable you to paddle a path through a cross-wind or other situations where physical forces are acting upon the boat. Pacific Rim natives created rudders from pelvic bones of mammals to use when needed. Greenlanders don’t use rudders but also have over 30 recovery techniques and incredible handling skills. The biggest problem with rudders on kayaks is usually the paddler who’s never learned how to properly use them.

  2. I am shocked by this tunnel vision story, I find it hard to even read the title. Knowing too much about the industry and watching the long boat industry become stagnant largely due to the , highlighting of certification groups, regarding Skeg mentality I find it incredulous to hear such rhetoric against the basic foundation of modern ocean kayaking to keeping our paddling newbies interested and wanting to enjoy their initial outings.
    We just have to look at the many amazing sea kayak events which have shut down as they were plagued with highlights of advanced rolling and Greenland skills, which presents a barrier to discuss or sign up for beginner activities or entice families to come and try kayaking. Use a rudder for confidence, and a paddle float for reentry enjoy your entry into our sport.
    To keep the sport alive get families into stable rudder kayaks with appropriate clothing and then when and if skill develops plug into the skeg boats wearing your goretex etc.
    I can tell you one thing, in a nasty windy big fetch sea, with a 9 day load of gear and fresh food for clients I sure as hell do not want to blow a shoulder out having to use a skeg boat, and no we do not use freeze dried food but fresh heavy food and gear for rainy west coast days off the north west coast of Vancouver Island.

  3. A skeg is a failed rudder.

    One wonders what designs of kayak the writer has paddled. Admittedly the sliding pedals designed in North America don’t help and those who know how to design things properly have never used that system.

    Otherwise, with a skeg and a variable wind, stop paddling adjust skeg, stop paddling adjust skeg, stop paddling adjust skeg, …..

    With a rudder, put it down and paddle, keep the rudder-lines loose and trim the direction when needed with your feet. Absolutely no fore and aft boat trim needed.

    Those of us who have used rudders for over 4 decades, one who has paddled around NZ, Australia, Japan, Alaska and a few other places, know how to use a rudder and know why it is better than a skeg.

    As for this question –
    “Think about it. If a fully deployed skeg makes your boat turn uncontrollably downwind in breezy conditions, won’t a rudder do the same?”

    NO.

    Trimming so it can be steered up and down wind, how can that stop it being paddled without the rudder down? It doesn’t make sense.

  4. And boats are just more fun to paddle without a rudder in the water. You can feel the interaction between boat and water so much more…the boat feels more playful. Rudders, and skegs, do have their place, but should only be deployed when conditions warrant…certainly not all of the time.

  5. I’m always interested in this. I have a nimbus lootas.. a playful nimble boat that always wants to go to weather if there’s wind. I have paddled in many places in many conditions over the last 30+ years. If there’s wind and I don’t want to be bothered correcting for it. I put the rudder in and a way I go. Never have had much trouble on many many multi day/week trips.. even with it loaded to the gunwhales. Only issue is in swirling waters such as meeting of two heavy currents or whirlpools but even then I’ve never been ‘out of control’. On the other hand I have only paddled skeg’d boats at fairs and paddle events so I’m not really familiar w the advantages. But I have spoken to quite a few who have experienced jammed skegs.. that does not happen w rudders. While I can appreciate the Greenlanders no skeg required approach I doubt I’ll go that way. I appreciate the efficiencies and allowances of my boat for distance and fishing, etc.

  6. My biggest issue with rudders is with new paddlers. They interfere with learn a proper stroke. With sliding foot braces, driving your legs to gain full rotation is an issue. It also impacts learn how to steer a kayak properly with edging and strokes as they come to rely on the rudder. That becomes an issue if they end up in a non ruddered boat. However, some kayaks can be a challenge to steer without them and in the hands of a competent paddler, they are a great tool.

    My preference is to learn/teach without the skeg or rudder being used. Learn how to control a kayak with your body and strokes. Then use the skeg/rudder as a tool to help.

    As for the skeg vs rudder and weathercocking, neither are needed. I love the skeg’s ability to help with tracking in winds, BUT I rarely if ever use mine. Last trip out was in 15-25 knot winds, 3-4 ft seas. Edge, stern draw, push the bow into a wave to correct course – all worked without additional effort.

  7. One absolute fact: if you have the big Chinook salmon on your line and he makes the quick move to the other side of the boat you are 100% screwed with a rudder.

  8. I love the rudders on my 2 Jackson Journeys. When I first started paddling in these long (for me) boats, I could barely turn them through sharp turns going down small rivers in Missouri. The rudders helped me avoid strainers, make sharp turns, etc. They are a pure joy to have on the big rivers in our state. It’s kind of nice to keep your boat going straight if you need to quit paddling for a bit. And you can turn the boat with just your feet. After paddling the journeys for a few years, I finally got the true feel of how they like to behave and hardly use the rudders any more unless I need to quit paddling and attend to other things besides a paddle. The journey is a pretty nimble boat, but it doesn’t naturally track straight cruising down a river. With the rudder down, you can read a book, and the kayak will go straight.

  9. The real-real problem with rudders is sand getting in the drop mechanism once beached and rolled over. Other than that I have always found it easy to use my rudder for wind and wave correction, most rudders can be held with less draught (trim) and would have the same effect as whatever seat movement ordeal you wrote about. Don’t think my CD equinox has any fore or aft seat movement at all. I really have to say the new Current Designs boats have the coolest pivoting foot pegs, as for my equinox it has the plain linear pegs. All in all thanks for the story. It always has been a fun topic with my paddler friends.

  10. I often say “Kayaking is an activity, not a religion, and it’s certainly not a cult.” There’s no right and wrong, just effective and ineffective. If it works for you, awesome. I have no dog in this hunt, I just want people to paddle and enjoy themselves. For 90% of paddlers, the question of rudder vs. skeg is a non-issue, since they’re rarely if ever paddling in conditions that make a difference. So while it’s a good practice to consider these things, it’s not a hill to die on.

  11. Why has this article surfaced again?

    The first criticism is “The real problem with rudders is trim.” The first answer to that is “Rubbish.”

    Turning the rudder is exactly the same as adjusting how much skeg is in the water. Plus the rudder is adjusted using the feet while the skeg adjustment, using a hand, means no paddling while it is done.

    The British designers all said “fit a rudder to a sea kayak” until the late 1970s. Read Alan Byde, Dennis Davis and Percy Blandford when referring to sea kayaks. Then a new generation took over and shouted loudly. Meanwhile a real kayaker was paddling round Australia and found the Australians had designed a good setup. He removed his skeg and fitted a rudder and has written a few times about how rudders work and why to use them. Meanwhile we have had over-seas kayakers paddling around this country with skegs and having the skeg-jam problem.

    As for foot bracing and rudders. This was due to bad design from America and using sliding pedals. About as bad an idea as is possible. Here, south of the equator we all used proper full-foot hinged pedals. Unfortunately fixed pedals with small hinged bits have since been imported and fitted to commercially built kayaks.

    Personally I’ve designed and fitted rudders to all of my kayaks since the mid 1980s. I’ve designed and used rudders on other craft since the 1950s so maybe know a little about rudders and the use of them.

    As for Brian Day’s “If you want your ruddered kayak to paddle properly in all wind conditions, you need to adjust the trim of the boat so that it is balanced in the wind when the rudder is down.” About all that can be said is “Rubbish.”

    Why? Because the rudder works when the kayak is moving and the rudder does not have to be in the “straight ahead position”.

    As for rudder types, In New Zealand the Daggerboard rudder was designed in 1992. Over a decade later KajakSports produced the Navigator version and this is used by Riot on some of their sea kayaks. The most recent version is by Sea-Lect Designs in 2009. Both KajakSports and Sea-Lect claim to have patented it though their claims would most probably fail if covering the concept and not just minor parts of the idea.

    Incidentally “Imagine yourself kayaking off the shore of a beautiful tropical island.” at the start of the article makes one ask, has Brain Day ever done that? I have and a group of us circumnavigated Vanua Levu, Fiji on a 38 day trip. All the kayaks had rudders. Recently a trip in Samoa, all the kayaks had rudders and they were used.

  12. My sea kayak single did not have a rudder, as a result my wife ended up with the rudder in our doubles – mostly due to her having a rudder in her Delta 15.5 original. What works for one does not work for all. Sliding foot peddles are really bad. The “gas peddle” type don’t have those downsides Robert mentioned.
    BTW Don’t knock the tandems, with two engines we’ve rarely had a single beat us when it counted. Normally one of us is offline when paddling with others. Rudders are a must for anything 17 foot or more. Ellero Kayaks tried to talk us into no rudder on our custom Sport Touring tandem but after the demo paddle we knew it wasn’t an option. Open water kayaking in coastal New England can require a rudder.

  13. The million-dollar question: if rudders are so bad, why on earth do competitive paddlers use rudders?

    You should spend some time with a surfski group. Rudders allow you to fight weathercocking and to steer without impacting your forward stroke. Oh, you say I need to learn how to edge… Yeah… edging while keeping real torso rotation is hard. I choose the rudder.

    As in any technology, there are bad implementation examples such as sliding foot braces. That’s simply poor kayak design, not a problem with rudders. If you think what people did hundreds of years ago is superior by definition, go ahead and trade your car for a horse.

  14. Well that certainly stirred the pot. Those with ruffled feathers would do well to read the article again. It is intended to inform people about the effect of trim on kayak performance, and how it relates to kayak performance in the wind. The Rock the Boat series is intended to be controversial so I wrote the piece with tongue in cheek.

    To summarize: Rudders work great especially for racing and long distance expeditions. They work best in designs that are trimmed so that the kayak is neutral in the wind when the rudder is deployed. This prevents lee cocking in the most severe winds. A kayak trimmed in this way will weathercock more strongly when the rudder is out of the water than a kayak that is trimmed more neutrally and is intended to be used with a skeg.

    Put another way, ruddered kayaks perform best with the rudder in the water.

  15. I recognize that there are some strong and well founded opinions on this topic and regret that the style of writing that I chose in this piece seems to have distracted so much from the real point of the article.

    If any of you are interested in a more nuanced discussion of this topic you might enjoy reading an expanded version of the article on my site, Kitchi-Gami. The post is a reprint of the original opinion piece with a detailed discussion of the effects of wind and trim on weathercocking and lee cocking.

    If you would like to take a look you’ll find the expanded article here:

    https://kitchi-gami.com/2020/07/26/sea-kayaks-the-real-problem-with-rudders/

  16. Brian Day said, “Here’s where we get to the real problem with rudders. A rudder, on the stern of the boat, fully deployed into the water, acts like a skeg all the way down.”

    This statement is wrong. If the rudder is turned, which is what they are supposed to do, then there is no resistance and it is the same as a skeg when up.

    One of the worst kayaks, from Canada, was the Puffin. Rudder up and it would get blown, bow down wind, lee cocking. So rudder down according to Brian would make it impossible to handle as it would lee cock more so. Actually rudder down and steer it up wind. The design problem, cockpit too far aft and even worse, sliding rudder pedals.

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