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The Rudder vs. Skeg Debate Revisited       by Ray Wirth

It's not quite the Red Sox versus the Yankees, but the debate about skegs and rudders often rises to a religious fervor, with adherents on both sides only becoming further polarized each time the matter is discussed. One thing seems certain: the debate will continue as long as there are kayaks. There is no final answer; and so, in the end, each paddler must make a decision based on personal preference.

Each time the technology advances, the debate changes somewhat. Most recently, the development of the Sealline SmartTrack rudder, has blurred some of the lines of division because it provides solutions to some of the biggest problems previously inherent in rudders. The SmartTrack rudder provides a dual pedal system on each side, one pedal is fixed for bracing, the other operates like a gas pedal for steering. In addition, the SmartTrack rudder housing is mounted behind the stern rather than on top of the deck, allowing for a shorter, lighter blade. Finally, the SmartTrack rudder has a foil shape that creates less drag than a flat non-foiled blade.


"Rudderman" says . . .

1. Turning: A rudder can assist turning, a skeg cannot. The rudder provides for a controlled turn, and can be used to set for a wide turn or a tight turn depending on the paddler's intentions. In addition, because the rudder is mounted further aft than a skeg, it has more effect on the direction of the boat.

"Skegman" says . . .

A deployed skeg can never do anything to help you turn your kayak, period. The argument here is that those who paddle rudder kayaks sometimes never learn the techniques of turning their kayak by other means. And this constitutes a significant loss in terms of safety and seamanship.

Advantage: rudder.

2. Tracking: Once deployed, a rudder can be used to improve tracking in virtually all paddling conditions. (When paddling in following seas, a kayak tends to broach. When paddling in beam seas, the stern the kayak tends to swing around to point downwind, also called bowcocking or weathercocking.) A rudder is a great advantage in these situations as it not only helps the boat stay on course but can be used to help get the kayak back on course. In addition, the rudder can be set at an angle to compensate for a beam or quartering sea. The skeg is a simple device for aiding tracking. While a rudder can be directionally adjusted, in terms of being positioned "up" or "down," it is an all or nothing affair. A rudder is either deployed or not deployed. A skeg can be adjusted vertically or "trimmed" -- and this is its genius. When paddled in a crosswind or beam sea, any boat whether ruddered or skegged, will slide sideways downwind. The paddler can still control the direction of the kayak if the bow and stern are pushed downwind equally. A skeg can be trimmed to effectively balance bow and stern, thus allowing the kayak to stay on course.  
Advantage: rudder.

3. Paddler technique: Traditionally, rudder boats have been unable to provide solid foot bracing, an essential aspect of good technique. Even with the rudder un-deployed, most rudder kayaks footbraces with a spongy feel. However, the SmartTrack rudder with its dual pedal system (see above) eliminates this problem, at least for some. Others find the SmartTrack footbraces to be too small for secure and comfortable bracing. And the toe pedal which controls rudder direction can be awkward to operate because of the foot position required.

Skegs are a "foot free" system. They allow paddlers more choice in foot placement. Many advanced paddlers remove foot braces entirely and set a bulkhead for the feet -- the larger surface area is more comfortable. This, of course, is not practical in a rudder boat. Edging, bracing, rolling, skulling -- virtually all advanced maneuvers -- require solid foot bracing, and skegs provide this.

Advantage: skeg

4. Speed: Most kayak racers believe that except in windless flatwater conditions, a paddler in a rudder boat will be faster than the same paddler in a skeg boat because the paddler can use the rudder to compensate for wind or currents, and thus can paddle at full power. In a skeg boat, the paddler often has to compensate for wind or current by taking a somewhat asymmetrical stroke, thus suffering a slight loss of speed. A skeg kayak may be faster in moderate conditions, because the skeg can be put down just an inch or two, resulting in less drag than a rudder which once deployed projects 4 to 8 inches into the water. But in most conditions the advantages of a rudder outweigh the additional drag it creates, and make rudder boats faster than skeg boats or boats without either rudder or skeg.  
Advantage: rudder.

From left, (1) retracted SmartTrack rudder (2) deployed SmartTrack rudder (3) deployed VCP skeg
(4) NC 17 -- hull up -- with sharp ends: a rudderless, skegless design.

SmartTrack Rudder, retracted position SmartTrack rudder, deployed position VCP Skeg, fully deployed position NC 17 Kayak with sharp stern section (rudderless, skegless design)

5. Handling Adverse conditions: For turning or staying straight in big seas, rudders provide more directional control to the paddler. In high winds, some paddlers will have difficulty turning their kayaks into the wind, and again the rudder is a great benefit. However, in windy conditions, an un-deployed rudder can act as a sail and make it more difficult to keep the kayak on course. Overall the paddler should not be dependent on the rudder, but it is a great tool to have when things get ugly or when a paddler gets tired at the end of the day. Many expert paddlers prefer skegs and have used them to navigate conditions far more unruly than what most of us will ever face. And, again, rudders can prevent lazy paddling and hinder the development of technique. Refer to # 1 above.  
Advantage: rudder

6. Malfunction / reparability: Text sources usually indicate rudders are more susceptible to malfunction and damage than skegs, but my own experience has not shown this to be true. Rudders do have more moving parts and are in a more exposed location on the kayak, and this theoretically increases the likelihood of something going wrong. Additionally, the SmartTrack rudder is smaller and less sturdy than conventional rudders and may be more susceptible to damage because of its location behind the stern. Still, a well-built conventional rudder (Feathercraft for example) is sturdy and durable. The ability of a rudder to "kick up" when a boat goes over a submerged object or into shallow water is a plus. In years of providing kayak tours, I can count the number malfunctioning rudders with the fingers on one hand. Rudders can also be easier to repair in that the parts are easier to get at. A retracted skeg is protected from damage by the skeg housing and by the hull of the kayak. A skeg boat has no exposed cables or lines. There is nothing to wack against the side of your garage or into a rock on the beach. Once deployed the skeg is somewhat vulnerable, however. Skeg cables are prone to kinking and jamming. Skegs are also prone to getting jammed with sand or pebbles. Once damaged, a skeg can be difficult to repair since many of the parts are not exposed. On the other hand, a damaged skeg usually does not interfere with a boat's performance other than the loss of the skeg. A damaged rudder sometimes means a total loss of footbracing.  
Advantage: draw.

7. Weight: Rudders involve more parts than skegs, both in the footbraces and in the mount and housing. Therefore a rudder generally adds more to the weight of the boat than a skeg. (Again the SmartTrack rudder is lighter in weight than a conventional rudder). In addition, since the rudder is further back from the center point of the kayak, it tends to take a bit more from the balance. These differences may be noticed while carrying the kayak but not while paddling.

Skegs involve fewer parts and are lighter in weight. This difference may be as much as 1 - 2 pounds, which is a slight but noticeable difference.  
Advantage: skeg

8. Aesthetics: Rudders do not have a great deal to offer in this department. Kayaks are designed to look clean, sleek, and streamlined. I have yet to see a rudder setup -- lines, cables, mount, housing, and rudder -- that does not detract from this. Except for the adjustment mechanism, usually a small slider located to one side of the cockpit, skegs are virtually invisible. The skeg blade itself is not visible when retracted and is not visible when deployed once the kayak is in the water.  
Advantage: skeg.

9. Simplicity: Simplicity can be a virtue in itself, and rudders don't have much of an argument here. A rudder system involves more moving parts including footbraces and additional cables, and like the human wrist it is designed to pivot from side to side as well as moving up and down. A rudder also affects your paddling whether you are using it or not. Beginning paddlers tend to spend a good percentage of their time fussing with their rudders because it take some time to learn to use them to control boat direction. Skegs are simple devices involving few moving parts -- usually just slider, a cable, and the skeg itself. There is also a beautiful simplicity to their use: one can "set it and forget it" -- sometimes not needing to make any adjustments for several hours of paddling.  
Advantage: skeg

10. Cost: Rudders usually but not always cost more than skegs. Most rudder systems are priced in the $150.00 to $250.00 range. The SmartTrack rudder is one of the more expensive rudder systems, retailing for about $250.00. Being simpler, a skeg is usually less expensive, and purchasing a skeg version of a kayak will sometimes save money over the rudder version. However, if your boat has neither a rudder or skeg and you decide to add something later, adding a rudder would be less expensive.  
Advantage: skeg.

11. Storage space: A consideration for extended trips: rudders don't take up any potential storage space within the rear compartment. Especially in small volume kayaks, the skeg box significantly reduces the amount of storage space in the rear compartment.  
Advantage: rudder.

Final Score: Rudder 5, Skeg 5, 1 Tie. There are many arguments in favor of both rudders and skegs. In the past, skegs have been preferred by expert paddlers -- in particular by those who paddle British style kayaks. In recent years, skegs have gained popularity among American paddlers and are now offered on more models of American boats. The SealLine SmartTrack rudder has somewhat blurred the lines in the debate in that it overcomes some of the biggest objections to rudders. However, the SmartTrack rudder is not for everyone, and it is not available on all boats. (It is available as an aftermarket purchase, however). And perhaps the next major technological development will be a skeg system that works more smoothly and more effectively resists jamming.

Whether you choose a kayak with a rudder or skeg, I encourage you to develop the skills that allow you to effectively control and maneuver your boat without either. Paddling without either rudder or skeg helps keep you more in tune with sea conditions, helps you use more muscle groups, and ensures you are "one with your boat" -- and that's a good piece of what it's all about.

Ray Wirth paddles kayaks with rudders, with skegs, and with neither in Penobscot Bay, Maine. He finds performing sweep turns and edged turns to be aesthetically and kinesthetically pleasing -- and he is somewhat of a luddite. He therefore eschews using rudder or a skeg unless absolutely necessary.

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Ray Wirth


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