If you’re in the market for a touring/sea kayak or even a recreational kayak, it would be helpful to know exactly what a skeg is and how it differs from a rudder. I would be nice to know how much of an effect they have (if any) and whether or not they are worth getting and which one is better.
In this article, we take a look at what a rudder and a skeg are, and then I’ll explore a bit more about how tracking and steering work, and take a look at the advantages of skegs vs. rudders.
Table of Contents
What is a Kayak Rudder?
A rudder on a kayak works in a similar way to a rudder on any other watercraft or aircraft. It’s simply a flat, sturdy piece of steel or plastic that sits at or near the stern of a kayak, and can be tilted or pivoted towards the left or right.
The principle, of course, is that as it pivots to one side, it creates drag in the water which turns the vessel towards the side with the drag.
In a kayak, the rudder line is a cable that runs to the cockpit and allows the paddler to raise or lower the rudder into and from the water. Rudder cables are a set of cables that run from the rudder to each foot brace, thus allowing a paddler to pivot the rudder left or right with their feet.
It’s important to note that having the ability to pivot left or right is what differentiates a rudder from any other option that may look similar like a fin or a skeg.
What is a Kayak Skeg?
A skeg is a protrusion that looks similar to a rudder and it’s located near the rear or stern of the kayak. It also has a cable that runs to the cockpit which allows the paddler to lower it (deploy) or raise it using a hand control lever.
Skegs are either internal or external in their mounting style, but they serve exactly the same function.
Most skegs can be retracted via a cable that is attached to the skeg and runs to a control lever in the cockpit. The skeg is mounted on the bottom of the kayak near (but not right at) the stern. It retracts into a recessed box that protrudes into the kayak (usually in a storage area).
A skeg is different from a rudder in that it is a fixed blade (often looks a lot like an upside-down shark fin) that does not rotate or pivot side to side.
IMPORTANT! – What’s the Purpose of a Kayak Rudder or Skeg?
It may come as a surprise, but a kayak rudder’s main purpose is to help maintain a course rather than to change direction. While it certainly can help change direction, it primarily serves to keep the stern of the kayak from drifting as the wind pushes it (this is an effect called “weathercocking” which I’ll discuss in the next section).
A rudder has the ability to pivot and “steer” which further serves to keep it on course.
A skeg does not have the ability to “steer” the kayak. In fact, as you try to change course, a skeg will likely resist your attempts to change course since that is its main purpose. It is designed to resist stern “drift” in a crosswind scenario.
Kayak Tracking and Steering Explained
Before the details of rudders and skegs are unpacked further, it’s important to understand some basic principles of how a kayak moves, acts and reacts in the water under various conditions.
Tracking and steering are two very important terms that share some similarities, but they are also different.
“What does tracking mean when applied to canoes and kayaks?” I have asked the question in some of my videos and also in conversation with others. Almost no one knows what it means, so it’s time to change that.
Tracking refers to the vessel’s ability to remain on course. If a kayak tracks well, that means it can maintain a straight line from point A to point B with minimal course corrections (like applying paddle strokes, steering techniques, wind power using a sail, etc.)
Kayaks usually do not have a keel line which helps in tracking so tracking can be a challenge.
Any object or design feature that resists lateral movement (side to side) will help tracking. An example would be a keel line which is fairly common on canoes and almost always present on aluminum fishing boats and most other motorboats.
With regard to tracking, both rudders and skegs can help. In fact, a skeg’s sole purpose is to offer better control in the wind, which is really another way of saying that it helps with tracking.
Steering a kayak is an added feature that comes with a rudder. A rudder still offers the benefits of a skeg (to a greater or lesser extent depending on the specific keel and rudder in question) but allows novice kayakers (and those looking for a bit of extra help in control) the ability to steer the kayak without only using paddle strokes.
Because kayaks are meant to be paddled with a double-bladed paddle, it’s not as difficult to stay in a relatively straight line as long as you apply the same paddling pressure on each side as you alternate paddle strokes.
However, wind and currents can add a variable that will make you change your even and symmetrical stroke pattern in order to stay on course.
IMPORTANT! – Water Dynamics 101
In order to understand the value of a skeg or a rudder, it’s imperative you understand what is actually happening to your kayak and its interaction with the water while you are paddling.
As you paddle through the water in any direction, the slicing action of your stem (the cutting edge of your bow) produces a wave on each side of the very front of the kayak (as it slices through the water). This slicing action splits the water and creates water pressure on either side of the bow (kind of like an ax chopping through a piece of wood won’t easily turn in any direction once it’s in the wood).
This slicing action ensures that the front of the kayak is more “anchored” or resistant to lateral movements.
This stabilizing effect of the bow pushing through the water (and the water pressure on each side of the bow keeping it steady and “anchored” while the stern receives very little anchoring support) increases with speed and dissipates completely at a full stop.
As the water passes down the hull of the kayak and approaches the stern, this “anchoring” quality from the splitting action is all but disappeared, so there is almost no protection from lateral motion at the stern.
So, if wind is hitting you from the right side as you paddle, and your balance and weight distribution makes the kayak sit fairly balanced in the water with both bow and stern being about the same distance out of the water, then your stern will start to move to the left (remember, no anchoring action) and your bow will NOT move to the left.
This essentially means the bow will turn INTO the wind, and of course this may not at all be the direction you want to travel.
To counter this effect (called “weathercocking”), you have to EITHER employ wider, sweeping paddle strokes on your right (to try to move the bow to the left), OR you can employ some mechanical device (yes, like a skeg or rudder) to try to minimize the weather-cocking effect on your kayak.
The diagram shows the weathercocking effect the wind has on a kayak with and without a skeg or rudder.
What About Edging the Kayak?
There is almost no time during the main part of most daylight hours that you will not experience wind on the water. Without a skeg or rudder, your kayak is subject to weathercocking, and aside from paddling hard and using sweep strokes, there’s only one other way to try to counter the weathercocking effect.
“Edging” is a term given to the process of “leaning” or slightly tipping the kayak towards the wind. As you lean into the wind, the effect of the skeg is lessened because it’s not as fully submerged. In addition, the “footprint” of your kayak is now different than it was when fully upright.
This change in footprint vaguely resembles a slight “U” or “C” shape in the water. As you edge the kayak towards the wind, the dynamics of how the wind interacts with your kayak allow you to more easily turn your bow away from the wind. If you sit up straight again, weathercocking takes over and now the kayak will turn into the wind (this is assuming the kayak is continually moving forward).
It’s important to understand that the less curved your kayak is (low rocker) the better it will track through the water, but the less you will be able to affect it while edging. They are so straight (with little or no bow and stern upsweep) that their “water footprint” does not change significantly when edged.
While edging will work for many kayaks to counter weathercocking, it’s also not a sustainable position to hold for hours. At the very least, it will make your trip a tedious one to “conquer as quickly as possible” instead of enjoying it.
Do I Actually Need a Rudder or Skeg on my Kayak?
The answer will vary depending on the type of kayak and the type of kayaking a paddler will do. If ultimate tracking is a goal, then having at skeg is a very good option. If tracking AND steering are both important, then a rudder is the best option.
Longer, better-tracking kayaks will benefit from a rudder which helps in turning an otherwise “turn-resistant” kayak. Shorter kayaks (even touring kayaks) that can be maneuvered relatively easily, will find that a retractable skeg will serve them better.
While it is possible to install a skeg or rudder, the good news is that most kayak manufacturers understand the need (or lack of need) for either a skeg or rudder, and include one of them on a kayak model that would typically benefit from having one of those options.
For example, a long kayak will benefit from a rudder to help turn it since longer kayaks are harder to turn. While a rudder is retractable, it is most often best left deployed at all times in all but the very quietest waters.
For long, tandem sea kayaks, a rudder is a “must-have” accessory since a kayak this long and thin is very difficult to turn well (especially with 2 operators) without a steering aid like a rudder.
Short, recreational kayaks turn easily, but that is often a desirable feature for this style of kayak, so a rudder or skeg is not typically needed or wanted.
As I discussed earlier, a skeg does not help in changing the direction of a kayak and will resist turning. A retractable skeg is a helpful feature because it can be deployed on a journey through wind and waves, serving to keep you on course, but in calmer waters, you can retract it in order to maneuver and turn more easily.
The Problem with Rudders
At first look, it might appear as though a rudder is a near-perfect option for anyone who would like to keep their kayak on track as well as steer more easily.
Unfortunately, veteran kayakers know better. A kayak with a deployed rudder (which acts the same as a skeg) will resist stern drift. That means the bow will slowly (or quickly) turn away from the wind. This will result in further corrective actions becoming necessary (ie. the paddler may have to paddle hard on the left side to counter the bow drift).
If the paddler removes or disengages the rudder, the same problem occurs, except now the stern will drift away from the wind.
In either case, further corrective measures need to happen.
In order to create a more manageable kayaking experience in which the kayak will react properly and predictably in all wind conditions, you’ll need to trim your kayak properly. Trimming refers to the adjusting of the weight distribution in the vessel to react as you would like in the wind.
The term “trimming” when used with a kayak can also refer to the degree to which a skeg is deployed, which will have a similar effect to shifting cargo weight to lower the bow or stern. With a deployed skeg, you are effectively “shifting weight to the stern”.
For example, you could trim a boat to head downwind by distributing weight in the boat to make the stern sit lower than the bow. The higher bow will catch more wind and will turn away from the wind.
You can check out this video about how to trim your canoe (the same principles apply to kayaks).
To properly trim a kayak to work in all wind conditions is definitely possible, but you must be deliberate about it and experiment in high winds while changing the position of your seat forward to backward a tiny bit at a time.
This process is awkward and tedious at best, and that’s if it’s even possible to change the location of your seat!
Skegs Are a Bit Better at Controlling Course Direction
Is a skeg any better than a rudder in helping maintain a course on open water in windy conditions?
The answer is YES. Why? Well, I should clarify that an adjustable skeg is by far the superior option when it comes to skegs since only an incrementally-adjustable skeg will solve the problem with kayak rudders (as outlined above).
A skeg that is fully deployed will often anchor the kayak a bit too much, while a retracted skeg does nothing at all. In most cases, a partially-deployed skeg will solve the problem of weathercocking and steering nightmares.
Pros and Cons of Rudders and Skegs
We’ve already discussed some of the good and bad that both skegs and rudders offer, but here’s a quick overview that may help you decide which one is better.
What’s the Difference Between a Skeg and a Rudder?
To summarize the difference between a skeg and a rudder, it’s best to see the rudder as a tool that can help a long kayak that tracks well, turn or steer easily. It also offers new kayakers some confidence in being able to maneuver the kayak a bit better. A skeg does not help steer, but because it is retractable in increments, it is a better option for controlling stern drift or weathercocking.
What is a Kayak Scudder?
A kayak scudder is yet another option for controlling your kayak, and as the name implies, it is a hybrid of both a skeg and a rudder. The idea is to combine the best of both worlds into one product.
Some manufacturers equip their kayaks with a scudder, and the general feedback from users is a positive one.
A scudder can be pivoted sideways to aid in steering but can be retracted into a skeg box when not in use so it does not act as a small sail on the kayak stern when retracted.
Scudders are used in EITHER rudder mode or skeg mode but not both at the same time. While it may seem that a product that combines two different systems might be nothing more than a compromise that does neither well, scudders typically do the job of both the rudder and skeg virtually as well as each one on their own as long as the scudder is in the appropriate mode.
Skeg vs. Rudder (vs. “Scudder”?) Key Takeaways
The controversy over which one is better has been the topic of discussion for many years. The answer to which is better is really an issue of resolving lots of variables like what type of kayak do you have, how long is it, how strong are you, what is your paddling environment like and countless other variables.
In a nutshell, rudders are good for long, well-tracking kayaks that need a bit of help to turn and also to resist weathercocking in most conditions. Rudders also help beginners gain some confidence in controlling their kayak.
Skegs are good for owners of shorter kayaks that can be turned fairly easily, but that would like some assistance in staying on course in windy conditions.
If you’re still undecided about which is best, you can look at what system is normally installed in a kayak like yours by the manufacturer. They likely have more insight into all the factors I have discussed than either of us!
Or, you can consider a scudder which will offer you the best of both options.