Friday, May 7, 2010

To Rudder or Skeg

There is great debate in the paddling world about whether you should have a rudder or skeg on your boat. I recently read a post by a blogger that I respect greatly, that said if you want to learn to paddle well, and learn advanced paddle strokes, you should use a skegged boat. I strongly disagree with this, and will explain why. But first here are the differences between the two.

First, a skeg. A skeg is a fin, housed in the rear of the kayak, that when deployed with a lever near the cockpit, drops down into the water. The skeg only goes up and down. It does not turn. Its purpose is to help the kayak go straight, or track, when the kayak is subjected to wind.

A rudder, housed on the top of the stern of the boat, is deployed by a cable near the cockpit, which lowers it into the water. Once it is in the water it can be turned left or right using pedals inside the cockpit. Its purpose is to help the kayak go straight, or track, when the kayak is subjected to wind.

Did you notice that the last sentence in each of those descriptions was the same? It wasn't an accident. Many people believe that a rudder is used to turn a kayak. This is reinforced by the fact that rudders start appearing on kayaks as they hit the 14 or 15 foot length, a length that is also where kayaks start to have difficulty turning. And while a rudder may be used to turn, particularly for newer paddlers, its real goal is to help us go straight.

When a kayak is paddled it may weathercock slightly, that is turn into the wind. That is all well and good if you want to go into the wind, but what if you don't? What if you want to paddle in a direction that puts the wind at an angle to your path of intended motion? You deploy a rudder or skeg to keep the boat tracking the direction you want it to go. The advantage of the rudder is it allows you to not only make the boat go straight, but also in high winds, where just the straight skeg might not be enough, you can add a little more. The skeg can also be adjusted, don't think of it as just up and down, think of it in degrees of down, the more it is lowered down, the more it can counter a strong wind. But if it's all the way down, and your boat is still being turned by the wind, there is nothing more you can do but correct with paddle strokes. Whereas with a rudder, you can add a little or a lot more.

The skeg has fewer moving parts, but does take up space in the rear compartment.

The rudder has more moving parts, but is stored on top of your stern where it doesn't interfere with loading your kayak.

Perhaps they are yin and yang, the rudder and skeg?

Another complaint about the rudder is that you can't get a good push off the rudder pedals, the way you can off of the fixed foot pegs in a skegged kayak. While it may take a bit of practice - like anything in a kayak - you can certainly push off the rudder pedals when you do a forward stroke, or any paddling technique for that matter.

There is a bit of a 'purist' thing going on with the skeg. I don't understand why. Nothing prevents you from learning advanced paddle strokes in a ruddered boat, unless you never put your rudder away. And that is the key. A rudder is a tool like anything else. If you rely on it, you will rely on it, and not your skill with a paddle. So put your rudder away when you don't need it. I have one, and it spends the vast majority of its time stowed on top of my kayak. Honestly I think the choice will be made for you, as very few boats are available with both rudder and skegged versions. Normally a boat will come with one or the other. But I wouldn't rule out a boat because it has one or the other. Make your choice by the way the boat paddles, and how well it fits you. The important thing is to get in a kayak in the first place.

Next week I will conquer the equally contentious topic of 'feathered paddles vs non-feathered paddles. Stay tuned.