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 rudders. As a younger man, I was steeped in the ways of rudder hatred.
I’ve heard all the arguments against rudders, 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.
Why Brian says no to rudders
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.
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.
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 towards 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.
Why do rudders work? Why don’t they?
Rudders work great on specialized kayaks intended to be paddled with the rudder in the water at all times, like surf skis 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.
Brian Day has been paddling sea kayaks, teaching kayak skills and sharing unsolicited opinions about outdoor gear since the early 1990s. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and blogs at www.kitchi-gami.com.