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.

5 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.

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