Posted by Darren Bush on 2/3/2013
The SmartTrack Control System
Discussing rudder systems is a bit like having a loud, religious discussion in a public place. Youíll attract lots of attention, and in the end, itís likely like no one will be changing their minds. Once a Scientologist, always a Scientologist, I guess.
There are those who decry rudders as a crutch, sometime used by weak paddlers who donít know how to paddle. People who use rudders see them as a tool for allowing a paddler to save energy in bad conditions. Rudders have some weaknesses, and SmartTrack wanted to fix the defects one by one.
Weakness One: Footbraces
Most rudders use a cabling system that runs a single cable from each footbrace to a side of the rudder bracket. That works, but there are down sides. The cables will stretch, providing a spongy contact point, and the cable swaging (the thing that makes the loop at the end) can fail, leaving you without a rudder and without a footbrace. Bad news.
The SmartTrack system has two cables, but it terminates in the side rail, not the foot pedal. This eliminates the need for the cable to provide support for the footbrace, which doesnít depend on the cable for tension. In other words, your point of contact is fixed and solid, not suspended from a 12-foot spring (a stainless steel cable still stretches quite a bit). The swaging is mechanical, but easily adjusted without tools using the Cool Rudder Wedgie (see diagram). This makes field servicing a LOT easier (and with simple tools, like a multi-tool that every kayaker should carry anyway), and carrying a spare cable is now actually worthwhile.
The footbraces on the SmartTrack system use a two-part pedal Ė one part that controls the rudder (with their toes) and one part to brace against with the ball of their foot. This is superior for many reasons, mostly because the footbraces stay solid, making paddling more effective.
Weakness Two: Windage
A rudder blade hanging out on the deck isnít the prettiest thing in the world. In fact, itís sorta ugly. Standed over-the-hull rudders must swing 270 degrees to stow on the deck because of the location of the pivot point. This rudder must also be long to have enough surface area in the water to be effective. In addition, the rudder blade must sit on a chock on the rear deck to provide a semi-secure footbracing. Because the SmartTrack footbraces donít need a rudder to provide a secure footbrace, the need to swivel the rudder back over the deck is eliminated.
So you have this big aluminum blade hanging out there in the wind when the rudder is stowed. It doesnít take much surface area to create an imbalance in the wind profile of a kayak, and with larger blades the boat can actually weathercock more with a rudder up than without a rudder at all.
The SmartTrack rudder systems have smaller blades, but thatís because they can due a more efficient rudder blade. That, combined with a rudder housing that lowers the pivot point significantly, and you have a huge advantage over traditional rudder systems.
Third Weakness: Blade Drag
The SmartTrack blade is a foil, a new concept to kayak manufacturers but an old concept to surfers. When I first saw the ST rudder, I said ďA surfboard skeg shaper made this.Ē Bingo. Thatís why itís efficient.
Most rudders are flat aluminum bar stock, stamped or cut out to a random shape that someone thinks is aesthetic. A foil blade produces more turning forces without stalling out or slowing the boat. Just a few degrees of angle produces a much easier turn than a standard rudder system. Oh, and a foil blade has a more laminar flow around it (the water isnít disturbed) and therefore less drag than a normal rudder.
Fourth (and the final) Weakness: Deployment and Stowage
Hereís the problem: the rudder is at the end of the boat, eight feet away from you at least. You need to get it up and down, quickly and easily, without capsizing, entertaining a intercostal muscle tear, or breaking your New Yearís Resolution that youíd stop swearing. Itís simple physics Ė you have a short lever arm (the radius of a pulley Ė see diagram) and a long, stretchy cord. Whatís worse, the length of the lever arm changes, so it gets easier as the rudder comes up. So you yank for all your worth and then BANG! The rudder hits the deck with a sound like a rifle crack.
Then one you have it down, you need to keep it down, even in the face of flotsam and jetsam and bull kelp, which is pretty massive. Itís not easy. In fact, to invoke an unsavory image, it blows chow.
SmartTrack designers fixed this problem in a clever way Ė they increased (temporarily) the length of the lever arm in the rudder housing, which makes the rudder come up with almost no force whatsoever. In fact, my eight year-old son can deploy and stow this rudder without even trying hard.
The bottom line is that it solves all the problems of a conventional rudder system. So is there any disadvantage to this system and is there an advantage to a skeg system?
In my mind, there are two advantages to a skeg system. First, Occams Razor states that the simplest explanation is always the best. There are a number of moving parts on the rudder system, and if it can move, it can break and fail. Skegs are inherently simpler and therefore less likely to fail. The other is purely aesthetic. No matter how attractive a rudder system is, it detracts from the lines of an otherwise beautiful boat. Sorta like putting a Groucho Marx nose and glasses combo on the Ginevra de Benci. Itís just not done.
That said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and definitely in the eye of the user. Remember, the rudder is in back of you, so you donít really have to look at it, and the way the rudder works will have you singing its praises no matter what the look.
The SmartTrack rudder system has a lot of history, and we at Rutabaga have been involved with this product since early on in its development. Thatís one reason why we created this website, to get the word out about how good the rudder system is. Weíre here to answer your questions. Itís what we love to do.