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

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30 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. I have paddled for a couple decades in oceans, lakes and rivers, but I do not consider myself an expert since my kayak has a rudder. When I join groups of experts with all sorts of letters after their names, they almost universally extoll the value of skegs and almost universally spend some of their time trying to get their skeg unjammed after landing on a sandy beach. Never had that problem with my rudder — which I use rarely but am always glad that it is there and never jammed when I need it. I do agree that every beginning paddler should learn all of the strokes if they want to go out in progressively more difficult conditions on longer trips. Using a variety of strokes to adapt to various conditions also makes kayaking more fun. On a trip to the Canadian Arctic, we watched an Inuit man demonstrate a variety of rolls and specialized strokes in a traditional kayak without either skeg or rudder. If I had his upper body strength and kayaking skills, I wouldn’t be so appreciative of my carbon fiber paddle and modern fiberglass kayak — with optional rudder.

  8. 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.

  9. Hello,

    I’m a French guy. I learned to paddle on English style kayak (with no rudder nor skeg). I purchased my first kayak 20 years ago and make it to come from Vancouver. I wanted a rudder and no kayak of the time in Europe had a rudder.
    Later I conceived and build a wooden kayak … equipped with a rudder.
    My future kayak will have a rudder and a skeg. I never broke any rudder when landing, but it will be the ultimate answer to who who say that rudder could break in expedition.

    Why a rudder ? Quite simple : in short, rudder preserve energy and when sea kayaking, saving energy is synonymous with security. What is most important than physical freshness and security at sea ?

    Bye.
    Christian

  10. A pile of pompous paddlers pontificating about rudders, Sure I can paddle without a rudder, but why? I can get a car without power steering, automatic transmission or air conditioning, but why? I live in south west Florida and we paddle lots of very narrow, winding rivers and channels in the Everglades where going straight for 100 yards is unusual. It’s very hot and humid and the water in summer is in the low 90’s. Often the mangrove tunnels are narrower than the width of the paddle and the only way to get through is to grab a branch and pull your way along, using the rudder to steer. Why work harder than you have to?

  11. …”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. “….

    This article is based solely on that narrow statement. My question: why does one kayak have to do everything? Whenever you expect one thing to do it all, you compromise each aspect you are trying to build into the equipment.

    My first kayak was a 17′ 10” Necky Tesla, built in 2002 and fitted with a rudder controlled by toe pedals atop fixed foot pegs. I love her so much that Turning Point Boatworks recently refurbished her and she will carry me on a solo circumnavigation of Lake Superior next year.

    With the rudder up, she turns approximately as well as the Titanic even when edged enough to submerge the coaming. She has been made fun of by numerous kayak friends (most of whom paddle NDKs and frequently request help with stuck skegs). I can manage to surf her, but why? That’s not what she was built for. She is my expedition ‘yak and she excels at it. Tons of real estate to stash gear for long trips and, rather than dancing all over the water like a play boat, she parts dynamic water like a snow plow straight and true. Landing her without getting surfed is a joy. Launching through surf, just as easy. All with no rudder! That is deployed mostly in wind. I have watched skeged friends spend miles sweeping on one side in rear quartering winds while I drop rudder and translate all my effort into forward momentum.

    My Necky isn’t a play boat nor does she play on on TV. That’s why I built the Pygmy Murrelet, which doesn’t have a rudder OR a skeg by the way. What does that do the unending skeg vs. rudder argument, I wonder? My Pygmy is the sports car to the Necky’s SUV. Each kayak specializes in different things.

    Rudder vs. skeg is a kayak elitists quibble. Some kayaks are designed to function better with one or the other (or neither!) depending upon their design. It’s all good.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. I built my first kayak in 1963, a Ken Littledyke sport single. The boat is still going strong 57 years later. It handles beautifully in 30 knots of wind and four foot seas. I don’t use its rudder all of the time but it sure comes in handy in strong conditions. Built a Littledyke double 18 and it is rudder equipped also. The rudder makes a huge difference in handling these boats. The glass/polypropylene whitewater slalom boat I built has no rudder and will not go straight for four feet to save your life, but it sure is a fun boat. Rudders definitely have a place in kayaking. A rudder can make a six hour paddle with a heavy wind from two points off your bow a much more pleasant experience. One should not feel superior because they do not use a rudder. I believe that the objective of our sport is for everyone to have fun.

  19. Also, I have never seen, nor heard of, nor seen in a catalog, a sea kayak with a sliding seat that can be slid fore and aft and then fixed in place to adjust trim.
    Please enlighten me.

  20. I don’t understand a lot of what’s written above. A rudder is always a rudder, never a skeg that can affect trim. If you are getting windage which is turning you off course, guess what, you have a rudder, so you use it to adjust your course to balance out windage. It’s a normal part of paddling a boat with a rudder. I’ve spent years paddling a K1 on the river Thames and as you return to the clubhouse, having been between tree lined banks, the last 1000m has open parkland (the Promenade) on the right. On a blowy night, you hit the top of the Promenade and instantly are being blown to the left. I just put on right rudder and keep it there for the rest of the paddle. The other comment I would make is, get use to your boat. When I was living away on a work project, I paddled a K1 on the river Severn. Come the winter, I swapped to a K1 River Racer, no rudder. It took me about 3 weeks before I was back to “hull steering” without it being a conscious action. To be at one with your boat, you need to paddle your boat a lot.

  21. The subject being discussed here is whether it is better to use a rudder or a skeg to MAINTAIN a kayak on course. If your interest is how to CHANGE course (i.e. turn a kayak) in normal conditions and you are using a rudder to do so, then you should be considering additional practice or perhaps some lessons. Under severe or constantly changing conditions, any and all assistance to control your kayak is welcome, rudder included.

    In order to maintain a course, one must balance the center of effort (force of the wind and waves against the kayak) against the center of resistance (the hull pressing against the water) . As discussed earlier, the center of resistance of the hull is not centred, but rather toward the bow when the kayak is moving through the water – the bow is locked in place, while the stern is more free to swing, producing a tendency to turn into the wind / waves (weather helm).

    In order to manage weather helm, we should look at the example of a dinghy sailor. The skipper has several options to achieve balance (called trim); they can adjust the set of the sails to move the center of effort, or shift their weight towards the bow or stern in the boat to move the center of resistance. A paddler has neither of these options while they are in motion; they have no sails to adjust, and their position in the boat is fixed. (There is a suggestion that the paddler might experiment with the position of their seat to achieve proper trim. This is not helpful, because the trim is specific to the conditions and your course, so you are best to do this once to seek a neutral position for ‘usual’ conditions, and then pack your boat evenly when touring so that it doesn’t change too much.) The only remaining option for the kayaker is to use the skeg or rudder to achieve proper trim.

    Back to the sailboat. If the sales are perfectly set and the crew cannot shift their weight any further, then the only remaining option is to use the tiller, which controls the rudder. It is easy to adjust the set of the rudder to keep the boat on course, but this comes at a cost. One only need look at the turbulence around the rudder to realize that the lift introduced by a turn of the rudder also produces drag which slows down the craft. The skipper can feel this via the constant pressure required on the tiller to keep the boat on course; if the boat is well-trimmed, there is little or no pressure on the tiller.

    Back to the kayak. If you adjust your skeg to achieve balance, you can do this with relatively little drag, since the skeg is fully immersed and pointing in the direction of travel. It efficiently moves the center of resistance forward or backward depending on whether you are pulling the skeg up or putting it down further. You can achieve the same thing by turning the rudder, but the cost is additional drag, which means you either travel more slowly or paddle harder.

    The conclusion is that the use of a skeg to maintain your course is not more effective, just more efficient. I will leave it wiser ones to tell us how much more efficient, and whether it really makes a difference in practice.

  22. 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.

  • Sorry Brian, but I think those whose feathers were ruffled understood your article fine. You say you wrote the piece tongue in cheek to be controversial. This might suggest that you are intentionally providing disinformation about rudders rather than being ignorant. But your next paragraph (the summary) proves that it is in fact ignorance.

    From your “trim” perspective, a straight rudder is like a skeg fully deployed, and one angled into the relative current is like a skeg that is all the way out. The full range is available with just a change in rudder angle, with the benefit that at angles equivalent to a partially deployed skeg, the rudder will provide some thrust.

    Plus, if you are actually paddling forward, you should be able to get the effect of a ‘negatively’ deployed skeg which is not possible with a skeg: by turning the rudder sufficiently upwind to cause some breaking, the rudder will assist the wind in pushing the stern downwind making the kayak turn into the wind faster than with a skeg that is out. Turning the rudder downwind will get the kayak to turn downwind faster than a fully deployed skeg (assuming rudder and skeg of comparable size), but again with a breaking cost.

    You claim that the article “is intended to inform people about the effect of trim on kayak performance, and how it relates to kayak performance in the wind.” Fine; make that your title. Or, better yet make it something like “How to use a skeg to trim your kayak and how that relates to kayak performance in the wind.” But avoid talking about rudders because you clearly don’t understand how they work and interacting with the water.

  • 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/

  • 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.

  • In his reply, Brian Day said: “Put another way, ruddered kayaks perform best with the rudder in the water.”

    I have to disagree. I paddle a 2002 Necky Tesla NM – 17′ 10″ and equipped with a SmartTrack rudder (fixed foot pegs with toe controls for the rudder). She performs just fine with the rudder up when there is no wind. I edge, sweep, bow rudder, low brace, peel out of eddies, you name it and she responds like any other boat of her beam and length. Yes, she turns about as quickly as the Titanic even edged to the max and she weathercocks if the person next to me exhales heavily because there’s a lot of deck above the shearline. That’s why there’s a rudder that goes up and down. I use it under specific conditions – fast turns and wind. It is not necessary all the time. In fact, I paddle most of the time with the rudder up, even when carrying 100 pounds of camping gear.

    My Necky is a purpose built boat used for expeditions, not a ‘versatile sea kayak’ and I think this is where the endless arguments are rooted. The entire article is written based on the premise that all kayaks are multi-tasking vehicles (which by design requires compromise in handling). Remove that qualifier and the rudder vs. skeg argument gets no traction.

    My Neck is my SUV. If I want a more nimble kayak, I paddle my 17′ Pygmy Murrelet 2 PD that doesn’t have a rudder or a skeg. She’s built to not need either, so what does that say about ‘versatile sea kayaks’ needing a skeg?

    A couple of other things to throw into the mix:
    I have paddled on windy quartering days with respected L4 instructors in skeg equipped NDKs. At the end of the day they were pretty tired on one side from all the control strokes. I dropped my rudder and the majority of my energy was directed into forward momentum, not steering. I wasn’t building muscle on only one side.

    The argument that rudders break is a non-starter. Any piece of equipment can break and to argue that rudders are particularly at risk is not borne out in my experience with them. My rudder assembly is original to my 2002 Necky. I’ve never broken the rudder blade even when getting window shaded in surf, the cables have never broken or fouled and the rudder has never failed to retract or deploy. I have never had to repair or fuss with another kayaker’s rudder while on the water, ever!

    I have, however, spent literally hours of wasted paddle time fussing around with skegs. They won’t go up, they won’t go down, the skeg box starts leaking and on and on. I’ve had to chase down and tow more than one paddler who couldn’t lift their skeg and were getting blown downwind, unable to turn. My dislike of skegs is more about that fussiness than whether they work better than a rudder.

    At the end of the day, the kayak design determines whether a rudder, skeg or neither is needed. Can we stop this tiresome “Tastes great! Less filling!” debate?

  • Hi Sandy,

    For the record, I like both rudders and skegs. For ocean play (surf, tide races, rock gardening) I prefer boats with skegs. There is no question that rudders are more efficient for racing and distance paddling. Safe to say that Paul Caffyn proved this in his Nordkapp years ago. (Although, to be fair, I believe that Caffyn was comparing the performance of the rudder to a fixed removable skeg that he fitted to the stern of his boat, which would not have allowed fine tuning like a retractable skeg does).

    At any rate, the point of this article is less about criticizing rudders and more about discussing the impact of trim on handling the characteristics of kayaks. Especially in the wind.

    Dropping a rudder into the water shifts the center of lateral resistance rearward in a kayak. Lifting it does the opposite. Shifting the CLR rearward increases tracking and promotes lee cocking. Shifting it forward increases maneuverability and weather cocking. Turning the blade of the rudder ameliorates this somewhat, but it doesn’t eliminate it.

    The kayak you describe would be dangerous in high winds. Of course, in moderate conditions it could be steered upwind with the rudder. In high winds the turning effect of the rudder would eventually be overwhelmed by the forces driving the boat downwind. At best it would be blown down and not off. And then only if the paddler could keep up the effort. After all, a rudder only works to steer a kayak when the boat is moving. From what you described, as soon as a person stopped paddling forward the boat would start pointing downwind again.

    Arguably the most high profile fatality in modern sea kayaking was the result of a kayak that would not respond to the rudder, two paddlers who were blown down into bigger conditions than they could handle, and an inadequate rescue that left them in the water for an hour.

    https://www.mensjournal.com/adventure/everything-we-know-about-doug-tompkins-death/

    I’m not sure why the kayak was not responding to the rudder in this case, but I can’t help but wonder if some element of trim is what was causing the problem. Maybe the tandem was loaded too heavily in the stern . Maybe pulling the rudder our out of the water would have allowed the boat to turn toward the wind more easily. We’ll likely never know, but the effects of trim on kayak handling can be significant. Anyone who paddles a sea kayak, regardless of whether they prefer a skeg, rudder or neither, can benefit from understanding the impact of trim on performance in the wind.

  • I doubt this will show up as my previous comments haven’t, but I’m hoping that the author at least can see it. Although, it is probably already too late to save his reputation among those who understand the water dynamics of rudders.

    The comments I noticed that seemed to come from “ruffled feathers” didn’t have a problem with the tone (the “tongue in cheek” aspect), but rather with one of your fundamental assertions that you keep repeating and doubling down on. That assertion being that a fully deployed rudder acts like a skeg all the way down. Sorry but that is false. Were it true, no one would ever have bothered making a rudder.

    In your expanded article you seem to almost realize that this assertion is the issue when you state: “With the rudder in the water you [you] have the functional equivalent of a fully deployed skeg. Its a big fin, in the water, at the back of the boat. This should not be controversial.” You are right that the topic shouldn’t be controversial, you just happen to be on the wrong side of that topic, and that should be obvious to everyone.

    A rudder angled appropriately keeps the stern from being blown leeward about as well as a paddle blade placed parallel to the boat can be used for a forward stroke (FYI it doesn’t). In fact, if the kayak has a reasonable forward speed, the rudder can be angled towards the upwind side enough that the water’s force on the rudder pushes the stern leeward adding to the force of the wind and not cancelling it. In other words, a kayak with a rudder can weathercock faster and more reliably with the rudder down than with it up.

    You are right about another thing: ” ruddered kayaks perform best with the rudder in the water.” (assuming performance means maneuverability)They also perform better than otherwise identical kayaks with skegs. They can weathercock faster than an otherwise identical kayak with the skeg up and can lee cock faster than an otherwise identical kayak with the skeg down.

    You may well be right about the trim being the reason why you couldn’t paddle your ruddered kayak with the rudder up. You may also be right that the designers intended the kayak to be paddled with the rudder down. But the designers did not pick the trim because it is the “right” trim for a rudder, rather, the rudder gives so much control that trim becomes much less important and for certain purposes other factors might be more important (or they might just have been lazy).

    So, if you want to practice paddling with the rudder or skeg up, just make sure the kayak has an appropriate trim. picking a boat with a skeg might assure that, but you should be able to find one with a rudder as well.

  • Total misunderstanding of how rudders and skegs work. Assuming you’re paddling forward, it’s not just something that makes your boat lower like a cinder block, it’s a hydrodynamic device. An engineer would talk about the “restoring force” that helps keep your boat going straight. Again, if you’re moving, a rudder acts like a rudder (or a fin if the rudder is pointed straight ahead), a skeg is just a fin.

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