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.


  1. PO, congratulations on your excellent post.
    With your explanation you bring some light to the often misunderstood concept of rudder and skeg.
    However I would like to comment of a few points that you made:
    1) (rudder) “Its purpose is to help the kayak go straight, or track, when the kayak is subjected to wind.”
    Very good comment that however is almost never observed. Most paddlers, myself included, would think that since a rudder pivots surely it must be designed for turning the kayak (like a rudder on a sailing boat). Only when I started to paddle a skegged kayak I finally learned how to turn the boat by leaning, edging and paddle strokes. The rudder simply made me rely on it too much.
    2) “Another complaint about the rudder is that you can't get a good push off the rudder pedals.”
    My rudder pedals were mounted as “gas pedals” on a fixed bar spanning across the hull where I could get a totally positive push. Only the toes of my feet would operate the rudder pedals. I am aware of designs that have movable pedals where a good push is not possible.
    3) “Nothing prevents you from learning advanced paddle strokes in a ruddered boat, unless you never put your rudder away. And that is the key”
    Well said. A deployed rudder prevented me from learning those strokes and body movements to turn the kayak. Unfortunately some kayaks behave terribly (severe weather or lee cock) with the rudder stowed on deck. Not very helpful for learning...
    4) (skeg)”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.
    Not many skegged kayaks are so badly designed that with a fully deployed skeg will still weathercock in non extreme conditions. Unless it’s a dog of a kayak (and weathercocks badly) the real concern is lee cocking in very high winds, but then again no more than a ruddered kayak.

    Thank you for posting well researched material in a terms that also non-experts can understand.

  2. Thanks for your comment, all are valid points, but let me respond to a few of them.

    number 4 first. Your right and as I re-read that, I toyed with talking about Lee cocking, but wanted (at this point) to keep it a bit simpler.

    number 3. As I initially read that I thought you were blaming the weather or lee cocking on the rudder stowed on the deck, which on my second read is not what I think you mean. But yes. many ruddered kayaks without the rudder deployed are severely effected by wind. For example the Wilderness systems Tempest 170. Probably the single most popular first touring kayak in the US. Ironically it was designed that way - but that is another post.

    Number 2. My current kayak is a gas pedal style. Every other kayak I have owned was the style you mentioned where the entire pedal moved underfoot. So I don't want to say it's not possible. I will say it is much more difficult. But you hit on the single most important point.

    That first kayak is vitally important. Most people buy rotomolded plastic as their first kayaks. Currently we are seeing more and more quality choices in roto plastic (Yesterday I saw that VALLEY is making roto/poly). But just a few years ago if you wanted a roto/poly boat that was also a good touring boat you generally saw a rudder. I think the reason for that is that rudders were understood - if incorrectly - by new paddlers. So by default, the great paddlers of tomorrow are probably paddling plastic/ruddered boats today! The important thing is to put that rudder away. Put it away, and work on edging, and bracing, and sweeping, and skills like that. And just because you have a ruddered kayak doesn't mean you can't do that and become a great paddler.

    What I think is more important than the rudder skeg question is what that first boat is. If you want to be a great paddler and your first kayak is ten feet long, 29 inch wide, with a massive cockpit opening. Five years down the road your not going to have the skills of someone whose first kayak is 16 feet long, 22 inch wide ruddered plastic touring kayak.

    It is human nature to have differences of opinion - and this is a topic that generates difference of opinion - and I am thrilled for the discussion. My goal with this blog is to get people paddling correctly, and setting new paddlers up for success. And there are several posts coming that relate to that - your conversation points helped generate one! thanks.

    With your level of skill - and life experience - there is little I can teach you. I am thrilled for the discussions you bring. Particularly if we disagree.

    Thanks Gnarlydog

  3. PO, I am always eager to have a civilized discussion and exchange different points of view with a knowledgeable person that respects others opinions.
    I however find, from reading your posts and replies that I mostly agree with what you say, even on the rudder issue :-)
    The most important point that so many advocates for rudders miss: learn to paddle with that rudder retracted. And that's what you are insisting here, if I understand you correctly.
    If paddlers of ruddered boats would learn how to use a kayak without one, I would not be so opinionated on the virtues of the skeg :-)

  4. You understand me correctly!

    Thanks again Gnarly.

  5. I've paddled both, and I currently have a plastic VALLEY with a skeg. Whilst I quite like paddling both types, I have noticed ruddered boats can have troubles surfing when the rear of the boat (and overhanding rudder) back up over the rear of the wave and come out of the water, resulting in almost immediate sideways cocking on the wave (and usually, a paddler going for a swim!). A popular kayak made in Australia that has an integrated rear rudder often has this problem. Here the skeg boats do seem to have a real advantage.

    I of course just seem to fall out regardless. ;)

  6. Sean, so your saying the rudder which is deployed, gets out of the water, and then the boat weathercocks? Interesting, I hadn't thought about that, but I can see that happening. And with the skeg beig lower and further forward it isn't a problem. Excellent point. Thanks.


  7. PO and Fatpaddler, surfing is the extreme for most sea kayakers.
    Rudders have shortcomings even in milder conditions, if relied on too much for directional stability.
    Look at this image:
    A P&H Cetus (a skegged kayak) that was retrofitted with a rudder (the owner trying to alleviate broaching in following seas).
    In this mild conditions the rudder is almost completely out of the water when cresting a wave. Give it a bit of beam wind and most kayaks will weather (or lee) cock if it was not for the skeg...

  8. That photo illustrates perfectly what Fatpaddler was saying. And it is a valid point, though I want to make a few points. First, A paddler in that situation should have the skill level to maintain control of the kayak. But most importantly, this blog is intended for the new paddler, and I don't want new paddlers to think that if they can't afford a skegged boat - or a fiberglass boat, or a NDK romany, or any of the really high end pieces of the equation that so many 'experts' claim you have to have to be a 'real' paddler - that they shouldn't try it at all.

    the important thing is that we get new paddlers to the water, safely, having fun, with an attitude that allows them to grow at the rate they desire to do the things they want to do.

    I will never fish from a kayak - though if you want to share your fish with me I will gladly cook! - but that doesn't mean I look down on the paddler who has a WS Tarpon 120 rigged out for fishing. In fact fishing is currently the driving force, and largest growing market segment for paddlers in the US.

    there is more han enough water for all of us. Let's just make sure we are all safe and having fun.