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Rudder or Skeg - What's the Story?

This is a hotly debated item. One side of the argument says that a rudder is non-traditional, not needed, and a substitute for good technique. It just gets in the way and adds a lot of gadgetry to an inherently simple thing. The other side of the argument is that a rudder greatly simplifies paddling in windy wavy conditions where directional stability of a long windage prone vessel is questionable.

The Skeg

Lets spend a moment to consider the uses of a skeg. The skeg effectively strengthens the keel line of a kayak with the goal of stopping the boat from being pushed around by the wind as much. A very simple blade extending from below the boat somewhere between the cockpit and beginning of the stern stem. Where it is placed is up to the designer to choose. If its too far back it will anchor the back of the boat allowing the bow to blow downwind. Great for surfing downwind terrible in a side wind. If its placed too far forward, it will do nothing as it is not far enough from the center of the boat to make any difference. So in essence a skeg serves to make a boat that turns OK manageable in the wind. The other use for a skeg is to make a boat that turns very well, track a little better. This type serves to make a boat more versatile for river or flat-water use. Usually the second kind of skeg is placed all the way at the stern of the boat to get the greatest effect. They are not especially good at stopping the wind from turning the boat; however, if the hull you are using needs a skeg to go straight, it is probably maneuverable enough to easily correct in the wind. Conversely, a boat that is very hard to turn, when it gets blown around, is much harder to correct. So a good tracking boat might not be as good as you would think when you get into strong wind, unless you have a rudder.

The Rudder

So what does a rudder do? Sits on the deck of the boat 90 percent of the time. Just like a bilge pump and paddle-float. Just like your first aid kit sits in it's dry bag almost all the time. Just like your spare paddle sits on deck waiting to be used. Or like your windshield wipers sit idle when it's not raining. That other ten percent of the time, a rudder can be a godsend. When those in boat with skegs are getting blown around and are working to stay on track with leans or specialized paddle strokes those with rudders simply shift one foot further forward than the other and the boat steers the exact direction they want it to go. A rudder gives the designer free reign to design a hull that interacts well with the water, not the air. That way, in the large percentage of paddling you do, your hull will respond in ways a hull designed to paddle well in wind without a rudder cannot. Highly rockered boats with lots of volume in the ends are generally not fun in the wind. But on flat-water or surf, they are a blast.

A rudder is not an excuse to not be in control of your boat. A rudder while it can be used to turn the boat, is not designed with that purpose in mind. It is designed with a very similar purpose to the skeg. As stated above, the skeg effectively strengthens the keel line of a kayak with the goal of stopping the boat from being pushed around by the wind as much. A rudder effectively changes the keel line with the goal of stopping the boat from being pushed around at all. These are two similar statements. A couple words are different. A skeg effectively strengthens the keel line while the rudder effectively changes the keel line. One is passive the other active. The final few words in the first description for a skeg are "as much" while the final words for the rudder are, "at all." A rudder is a solution to a problem. A skeg makes the problem smaller but does not eliminate it.

A skeg is visually simple but mechanically complex. Skeg boxes and cables are famous for breaking down and leaking or getting clogged with sand and getting stuck completely. They are heavy and take up space inside the kayak. A rudder usually means you will have slightly less solid foot braces. Visually it looks more gadgety and complex, but all the gadgetry is exposed and easy to get at. Rudder cables can break, but they are on the outside of the boat and can be replaced more easily then a skeg cable. A rudder clogged with sand is a problem, but paddling partners can get to the problem while on the water.

It is really up to you to consider all this information and decide which you like better. You should go with your own gut feeling. Test the two out and see which you agree with more. Better yet, paddle a boat for its hull, pay no attention to rudder or skeg and deal with whichever one the boat happens to have because you might not use either one all that much.


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