If you are looking to buy a kayak before the next paddling season, there are some decisions you will need to make. The first decision is what kind of kayak do you need – recreational, sea/touring, or whitewater. If you are unclear about what the differences are, read my article,“Choosing Your First Kayak”. Once you are clear on the kind of kayak, you need to choose the best hull material for your purposes and pocketbook. I outlined the benefits and disadvantages of the most common materials in a previous blog post on November 20, 2009, “The Best Hull Materials for Kayaks”. If you are in the market for the longer sea/touring kayaks, then you will have another decision to make in order to whittle down the many choices of kayak models available to you. That decision is rudder, skeg, or neither. Solo recreational kayaks less than 14 feet in length do not have any need for a rudder, so don’t waste your money. Rudders will add about $200 to the price of a kayak. Whitewater kayaks will never have a rudder on them. There are just a very few recreational and rec/whitewater kayaks that will have skegs on them. These kayaks are intended for lower skilled paddlers looking to paddle on very easy whitewater rivers. The skegs are retracted when in rapids, but can be used on stretches of flat water where the paddler is having trouble making the kayak track straight.
What are rudders and skegs and what are they used for? Both rudders and skegs are actually used for the same purpose, they help to keep your kayak tracking in a straight line when wind, waves, current, or poor paddling technique are causing you to veer off course. Neither rudders nor skegs should be viewed as absolute necessities for controlling your kayak. Both are mechanical devices that can fail at the most inopportune moments, so you as the paddler must have the skills to maneuver your kayak in any conditions without the assistance of a rudder or skeg when necessary. Some kayaking purists will argue that your kayak should not have a rudder or a skeg. Others will try to tell you that skegs are superior to rudders or that rudders are better than skegs. Back in the late 80’s when I started kayaking, you could get a pretty good argument started between sea kayakers if you brought up the subject of rudders vs. skegs. I paddled a Current Designs Solstice SS with a rudder for 9 years and a Nigel Dennis Explorer with a skeg for 11 years. I rarely paddle with a rudder or skeg in the water, partly because I rarely feel a need for them, and partly because they both seem to be impossible to deploy when I feel like I might want to use them. For the latter reason, I would argue that it is critical that you develop the skills to paddle without depending on a rudder or skeg, but go ahead and use them when they would make controlling your kayak easier.
Rudders mostly are located at the very end of your kayak’s stern. When not in use, they are retracted onto the back deck or at least lifted clear of the water. When in use, the rudder is dropped into the water with a rudder control cord that can be accessed from the cockpit by the paddler. The blade of the rudder can pivot from side to side. With only a few exceptions, this pivoting motion is controlled by cables that are connected to the kayak’s footbraces. The paddler uses his/her feet to control the angle of the rudder blade. There are important benefits to rudders. They are the most efficient way to make course corrections if you want to be able to maintain a strong forward stroke. In other words, racers will always choose a rudder. Having to alter your forward stroke in any way to take a corrective stroke will slow your kayak, something a racer does not want to have happen. For the non-racer, you may still want a rudder. When your kayak is weathercocking (bow is constantly turning into the wind), you can adjust the angle of the rudder so that you are initiating a turn in the opposite direction in order to cancel out the weathercocking motion. For example, if the wind is causing your kayak to turn to the right, angle your rudder blade toward the left just enough to stop the turning motion to the right so that the kayak travels in the straight line you want it to follow. Without the rudder, you would have to be taking a lot of corrective strokes, pulling harder on the right side, or paddling with your kayak on edge. All of these techniques will work, but they can get tiring if you have to keep them up for several miles. When you are paddling a tandem with a weak novice kayaker, rudders can be indispensible. The rudder will allow the stern paddler to be able to turn and maneuver the kayak without the assistance of the bow paddler. This can be critical if you are paddling with a child, an unskilled kayaker, or an incapacitated paddler who cannot perform the necessary strokes effectively. Critics of rudders will argue that they are more likely to get damaged, cause injury during a rescue, or interfere with a tow rope because of the prominent, exposed location it occupies on the back deck. This is all true, but they are also much easier to repair when a problem occurs because most of the components are easily accessible even when an on-water repair needs to be performed. Rudders are also more interchangable between kayaks, so if your obscure 20-year-old kayak needs a new rudder or just a few parts, there is a much better chance that you will be able to rig up a reasonable repair without having to get custom fabricated parts. At those times on the water when I had trouble getting my rudder to flip down into the water, I was always able to reach back with my paddle blade and use it to flip the rudder blade off my back deck and into the water. You can’t do that when your skeg gets stuck. If you choose to get a kayak with a rudder, look for one that has a fixed footbrace system rather than the sliding footbrace system. Your back and legs will be more comfortable if the braces you rest your feet on are not sliding forward and backward. You will also be able to use your legs more in your forward stroke if you have a solid footbrace to push against. If you find a great deal on a kayak with sliding footbraces, don’t despair. The footbraces on just about any kayak can be replaced with a new footbrace system without too much difficulty. Allow about $100 for parts, though. While many beginners discover that a rudder can be used for turning a kayak, that is not a good way to do it. A much faster and tighter turn can be executed using a variety of strokes and maneuvers, and pivoting the rudder more than 20 degrees to the right or left results in a significant amount of drag which slows your kayak’s forward speed.
Skegs are often found on kayaks that are designed with more rocker in their hulls. (If you are unsure of what is meant by rocker, think of the rockers on a rocking chair or hobby horse.) The greater degree of rocker will increase maneuverability (makes the kayak easier to turn), but when improved tracking is needed, the skeg can be deployed. The skeg is located unobtrusively on the underside of the kayak toward the stern. The paddler drops the skeg into the water using a release cord or a slider located next to the cokpit. Most skegs can be adjusted so that only a portion of the blade is dropped into the water. This is important since skegs work differently than rudders. When your kayak is turning, it tends to pivot around a central point (usually near the paddler sitting in the cockpit). As you paddle forward, water pressure on either side of the bow tends to keep the bow from turning very easily, but low pressure eddies that develop on either side of the stern behind the widest part of the kayak make it easier to slide the back of the kayak to one side or the other. A kayak with the skeg completely retracted into the hull will tend to weathercock (the bow turns into the wind). If you drop the skeg all the way down into the water, the kayak will most likely have a tendency to leecock (the bow turns downwind). The trick is to lower just the right amount of skeg blade into the water to cancel out the tendency of the kayak to weathercock or leecock. Since the strength of wind, waves, and current do not remain constant, it will be necessary to take occasional corrective strokes since it is not convenient to change skeg position while you paddle. For this reason, racers do not favor skegs. Skegs are usually safer in rescue situations and do not interfere with tow ropes, but they are more likely to get jammed with stones and sand when you launch or land your kayak. If you have a rope-controlled skeg, your skeg may not drop down when you release the rope. If you have another paddler nearby, he/she may be able to reach into the water under your boat and pull the skeg down manually, but you can’t do it yourself. Sometimes the other paddler will not be successful either depending on how badly the stones or sand are wedged into the skeg box. Trying to force your skeg down with a slider control will just kink the internal control cable making it necessary to do a cable replacement. While rudders may be easily damaged, I have actually seen many more non-functioning skegs than rudders over my years of paddling. To prevent some of these problems with jammed skegs, paddlers will launch their kayaks backwards in order to keep the skeg out of the sand. If you are not comfortable paddling backwards into waves, this may not be a good option. The older style rope-controlled skegs do not have a lot of unique parts, but some of the newer systems do contain some specialized parts that may be hard to find in 10 years if skeg designs continue to change over time. Skeg repairs are also a little more difficult because many parts of the mechanism are inside the kayak. One other minor complaint is that the skeg box takes up some of the space in the rear hatch which can be a nuisance if you use your kayak for camping trips or just need the storage space in the rear hatch.
Whichever you choose, rudder or skeg, make sure you can paddle the kayak in all conditions without having to resort to reliance on either system. Once you can do that, then you are free to choose the mechanism that makes the most sense for the way you plan to use your kayak.