Any keen ocean kayaker knows that rudders and skegs serve a similar purpose, but are quite different pieces of equipment.
In this article, we’re going to explore how to choose the right option to suit your kayaking needs and ensure that you can enjoy an optimal experience with the equipment that you buy.
Both a skeg and a rudder can be used to improve the steering and handling of a kayak. The main difference between the two is that skegs don’t move from side to side – they only go up and down- whereas a rudder can do both. A rudder is most useful on boats that don’t turn easily, and a skeg is typically used when the stern is freer, providing more control and stability in windy conditions.
What’s The Difference Between A Rudder And A Skeg?
When trying to decide between a rudder and a skeg, it helps to gain a clearer understanding of each one.
We’ll start by examining what each of these pieces of kayak equipment are and how they work on both sea kayaks and touring kayaks.
A rudder is a small blade that is fixed to the kayak and can be controlled by cables held by the paddler.
The rudder blade is then turned using the cables, which causes the boat to turn left or right.
The rudder cable can be connected to the foot pedals at the base of the kayak by the foot support, and kayakers can use these to steer the kayak with their feet instead of the paddle.
Rudders give kayakers the ability to turn and control their boats more easily and quickly, if necessary.
In contrast, a kayak skeg can be internal or external.
An external skeg is mounted to the boat the same way that a rudder blade is, but it doesn’t use cables to turn it to the right or left – it only moves by retracting up into the hull.
An internal skeg serves the same purpose as the external skeg, but it sits inside recessed housing in the kayak’s hull (sometimes called a skeg box) beneath the kayak, rather than being mounted on the back.
The blade in a skeg system is then connected via cable to a sliding lever the paddlers can control with their hands.
Kayakers can deploy the skeg blade or retract it into the hull when they’re not using it, which is particularly useful in shallow water, where a skeg would be damaged on rocks or gravel.
Rudder vs. Skeg
Both the rudder and the skeg are controlled by stainless steel cables.
Rudder cables are attached to each foot pedal, while skeg cables are generally a hand-controlled cord system.
The major difference between a rudder and a skeg is in the movement of the two blades.
Rudders are specifically designed to give kayakers more control over where their boats go and help them to plot a straight path in a particular direction, even when dealing with cross winds or quartering winds.
A skeg, on the other hand, is designed to stabilize boats in the water. It can give boats more stability when dealing with strong winds on an especially windy day.
Why Might You Use A Rudder?
So, when are rudders the most useful to kayakers and in what situations may you find them most helpful?
Rudders are useful if your kayak is very difficult to turn, and your paddling skills need some assistance.
They also serve to keep the kayak steady in the water, providing water resistance at the stern, but they are predominantly used as a means of turning the boat.
This is the main advantage of a well-designed sea kayak with a rudder – it allows you to steer the boat using just the foot pedals.
While it is, of course, possible to steer a kayak using paddle strokes alone, that can be much more tiring.
Even the strongest paddlers will likely find themselves exhausted if they find themselves constantly having to make major paddle corrections.
This can be even worse if you are constantly fighting with the wind or being pushed sideways into choppy waves.
Kayak manufacturers realized this, and provided foot pedals as a solution.
A rudder both decreases the paddling intensity and allows you to transfer some of the workload to your legs through the foot pedals, saving your arms some of the work.
This means you can put more of your energy into paddling forward, rather than putting excessive effort into turning strokes and corrective strokes to stay on course.
This is why even the most skilled paddlers can benefit from using a rudder, although some purists prefer not to add them to their kayaks, and believe it is better to control the boat only through paddling.
Even if you’re paddling in gentle conditions and flat water, using a rudder will improve your kayak’s ability to turn, and can make your kayaking experience more relaxing and fun overall.
When it comes to racing kayaks and sea kayaks, rudders are basically essential.
A rudder gives you a lot more control over your boat, as well as increasing its stability and tracking ability in the water.
Kayaking without a rudder is perfectly doable, but most people find that a rudder is of use to them in at least some circumstances.
If you enjoy kayaking at sea or in any water conditions where you’ll need to continue adjusting the direction of your boat (ie., if it won’t stay on a straight course due to currents, waves, and wind), rudders will make the experience much easier, and can save you enormous energy expenditure.
What Are The Cons Of Using A Rudder?
There are some situations in which using a rudder could be disadvantageous, although not too many.
After all, even if you’d rather not use a rudder because you consider it to be “cheating” in some way, having one can provide a safety feature that gives you the option, and you are not obliged to use it.
The biggest con of using a rudder is that, like anything you add to your boat, it sticks out and is easy to damage, especially before you get used to using it.
You may find that you knock or bump it against rocks, or that you accidentally run it into something when you are moving the kayak backward.
You have to get into the habit of raising the rudder when necessary, and keeping an eye on it — or at least being aware of it — when maneuvering around rocks.
The other potential problem is if your kayak rudder fails, or breaks (which is where skegs have a slight advantage; they are fixed and therefore unlikely to break).
If you find yourself in more challenging conditions than usual because you’re depending upon your rudder, this could become problematic.
That’s why it’s important to always check that your kayak’s rudder cables are in good condition before taking your kayak out.
You should promptly replace any cables that have started to fray or show signs of wear.
It’s a good idea to carry repair tools while out on the water if possible, especially if you’re going to be depending on your rudder.
Carrying spare cables as a backup can also prove to be very useful.
Always test a new rudder in calm conditions before you risk taking it out into a more challenging environment.
Overall, however, there aren’t many disadvantages to using a rudder, and you should consider adding one to your sea kayak even if you don’t intend to use it often.
Why Might You Use A Skeg?
In what situations might a skeg be particularly useful?
In general, skegs are a good way to increase the stability of your boat and make it more resistant to blowing downwind or being pushed off course.
Given that sea kayaks are very long, they can be more challenging to maneuver, and if you’re also grappling with windy and wild conditions, it can be even harder to control your boat with paddling alone.
Skegs And Sea Kayaking
One of the biggest challenges that a sea kayaker has to grapple with is wind, which can be extremely frustrating.
If you’ve ever tried kayaking out in the open ocean, you’ve probably come across a phenomenon called “weather cocking”.
This happens when your sea kayak turns into the wind, rather than away from it.
That might sound surprising, but there’s a simple explanation for why this happens: in traditional kayak design, the stern end of the kayak is often much freer from water resistance than the prow of the boat, which experiences slightly more drag.
As you paddle, the prow of your boat is caught in the “bow wave” (the wave created by the boat when you paddle forward) and this reduces the effect of the wind blowing it, making the front more resistant to being pushed off course.
The faster you paddle, the more bow wave will be created, and the more water resistance will be acting on the prow of the kayak.
The stern of the sea kayak, however, does not have much water resistance working on it, and so when the weather is windy, the rear deck of the boat swings away to turn downwind.
The front then turns into the wind as the back swings around, and this is known as weather cocking.
It’s very challenging for kayakers to deal with, because it makes it nearly impossible to go in a straight line, especially when out at sea, where the wind is likely to be strong.
You can counter weather cocking in some situations by making use of controlled paddle strokes and weight distribution.
But oftentimes, wind is so hard to handle that even an experienced paddler in a well-designed kayak may struggle in bad conditions.
Some kayaks have more resistance on the stern, but if you’re kayaking out at sea, a skeg is a great way to increase your kayak’s wind resistance at the stern.
If you use a retractable blade, it can be fully deployed out of the rear hatch when the wind is bad, and the narrow, fin-like blade will give you more control in the water.
The skeg will simply increase the water resistance on the stern, preventing it from blowing to the side as easily.
With the bow wave on the front and a skeg on the back, you will have significantly more ability to work against the wind.
The skegs on many sea kayaks are also adjustable, so you can increase or decrease the resistance so that the bow and stern are affected by the wind to the same degree.
This makes it very useful for skilled kayakers, who can adjust the kayak skeg as much as they need to.
You can even use the skeg to turn the kayak in windy conditions, if you do so skillfully, by increasing or reducing the amount of skeg that’s beneath the level of the water, and using the wind to propel the kayak in the desired direction by making the front turn more readily than the stern.
However, a skeg cannot help you turn when the conditions are not windy. It doesn’t work like a rudder, and is of no use for improving your steering in a sea kayak except for when it is windy.
What Are The Cons Of Using A Skeg?
You might be wondering how a skeg fares by comparison.
Again, the disadvantages of using a skeg on sea kayaks are fairly minimal.
Compared with a rudder, of course, the skeg has a significant disadvantage.
It’s not useful in helping you steer unless there’s a strong wind, so if you just want assistance dealing with tight corners or staying on track, it won’t be particularly helpful at all.
The skeg also suffers from a similar disadvantage as the rudder, in that it’s relatively easy to damage the skeg if your kayak accidentally backs into a rock or bumps it against something.
However, if you use an internal skeg, it can at least be retracted when you’re not using it, and as the skeg sits below the kayak, it’s easier to avoid bumping it.
Being below the kayak does introduce a different problem, however.
Skegs often pick up little stones into the skeg well, and these will jam the mechanism.
Trying to use the slider to free the stone could result in damage to your cable, so it’s best not to do this.
Instead, you’ll need to get out and free the stone manually.
A final disadvantage of skegs is that they take up very valuable space inside the kayak (for the skeg box) and this can be frustrating if you need space in your boat — especially if you only use the skeg once in a while.
A rudder and skeg are similar, in that they both give you more control in the water.
But if you want to increase your control over your kayak’s steering, the rudder is definitely the best option.
A skeg will give you more control and greater stability on a windy day, but will make no difference in your ability to steer.
Both a rudder and skeg will help you out significantly if you’re interested in sea kayaking or if you use touring kayaks regularly in windy weather, but remember that you’ll still need a rudder for improved steering!
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