Posted by Darren Bush on 5/28/2013
You can’t talk about rudders or skegs without rousing some religious zealotry from either side. Discussions in which name-calling does not occur are rare. We would like to be as neutral as possible.
Rudders are common on many kayaks. Controlled by footbraces in the cockpit, they are easily deployed from the deck by a control cable and are usually spring-loaded so that the kayak can run over flotsam or kelp and shed it easily and keep paddling. Because of the cables running to the rudder, there can be a spongy feeling to the footbraces sometimes, and if a cable breaks, you lose your ability to brace on that side. Fortunately, they are not liable to break unnoticed (watch for signs of wear), and are replaced fairly easily.
A rudder will also allow you to steer a boat with the rudder while allowing you to focus your energies on forward motion and not waste energy on course correction. This is a mixed blessing, as there are times when you can become dependent on the rudder, which is not a good idea for obvious reasons.
Rudders allow the paddler to adjust to conditions instantly—just a nudge on the pedal and the effects of currents or winds are mitigated considerably. They are likely to be overused by beginners, so we recommend that beginning kayakers who paddle boats with rudders keep them stowed for the learning period, sort of like a new driver would not want to use the cruise control in their automobile.
Skegs are less common, but are gaining in popularity due to their simplicity. First popularized by British-style kayaks, the drop skegs are less “instant” than rudders, but have some aesthetic advantages — there is nothing hanging off the back of the boat, spoiling the lines of the kayak.
Skegs are easier to service in the field, again due to their simplicity. The disadvantage comes when adjusting the skeg to compensate for wind. Most kayaks tend to weathercock (that is, turn into the wind), and by dropping the skeg into the water, the center of rotation for the boat moves aft, and if not checked, will cause the boat to leecock (that is, turn downwind). The trick is to adjust the amount of skeg in the water until the boat has a neutral helm, neither weathercocking or leecocking. This can take a little practice, but practice usually pays off.
Then there’s Nothing. It’s not hard to sing the virtues of nothing. Nothing can’t break. Nothing can’t cost more (usually). Nothing is simpler, and in the life of a paddler, parsimony is a pretty cool thing. If the boat is properly designed, nothing can be a really attractive option.
On the other hand, even hard-core anti-rudder advocates like Brian Day admit that “sometimes you wish you had a rudder back there.” No matter how good the design, there is that thing called operator error, which means you might overload the back of your boat by 20 pounds and suddenly your perfectly-trimmed boat won’t paddle into the slightest headwind. Parsimony is sometimes a two-edge sword.
Having owned one kayak in each family, I can honestly say I have no preferences. I enjoy paddling a boat with nothing for the pure simplicity, but at the same time, when the weather got nasty I enjoyed the rudder and skeg. When a rudder cable broke at an inopportune time, I was bummed out, but also was not happy when a small pebble jammed my skeg in the skeg box and it took landing and re-launching to clean it out.
So let the religious zealots continue the battle. Why not just paddle and enjoy it?