Going StraightDo You Need a Rudder or Skeg for Your Kayak?
By Farwell Forrest
Going straight isn't easy. Even with a double paddle and a
well-practiced forward stroke, most kayakers soon find that wind,
waves, and currents sometimes make it hard to keep their bows pointed
where they want. Cross-winds and following seas, in particular, can
bedevil even strong, experienced paddlers. Many boats tend to turn
broadside ("broach-to") when big waves roll beneath them from astern,
or pivot up into the wind ("weathercock") in gusts.
Staying straight isn't just a matter of convenience. A broach can
lead to a capsize or even an unplanned swim. And a boat which
weathercocks can be exhausting to paddle. On long trips or open-water
crossings, exhaustion can wear you down and make you error-prone. Not
surprisingly, the middle of a big lake or a fast tidal stream isn't a
good place to start making mistakes.
OK. It's hard for most of us to go straight. What can we do about
it? Some simple stuff, to begin with. Load your boat carefully. Keep
it on a even keel, neither bow- nor stern-heavy. And keep your
heaviest gear out of the ends. Don't carry a lot of bulky deck cargo,
either. A big pack acts like a sail. In bad conditions, a gust can
spin you right around, despite your best efforts with your paddle.
Choose the right boat, too. Conventional wisdom suggests that long,
straight-keeled kayaks are easier to keep in the grove on open water,
while shorter, more highly rockered craft are best suited to the
twists and turns of whitewater rivers. And it's truea least some
of the time. Despite recent advances, however, boat design is still an
inexact science. There's the classic case of Magic, for
example. A marvel of (then) state-of-the-art engineering and design,
this 1983 America's Cup challenger flunked its tank-test. To
everyone's surprise, she slipped through the water more easily
stern-first than when she was turned the right way round. Magic,
Today, of course, we have much more powerful computers and better
modeling tools than Magic's hapless designer did, but nature
still has a few surprises in store for us. A case in point from my
mail-bag: Gerry Adler is an experienced ocean kayaker and ship
driverand a regular visitor to Paddling.net. He paddles both
hard-shells and sit-on-tops. While Gerry finds his rudderless 9-footer
manageable even in "pretty rough weather," it took just one bad day on
San Diego Bay to convince him that his big Cobra Tourer needed a
rudder. He ordered a kit just as soon as he got back on dry land, and
he's never regretted his decision.
The moral of the story? If you're already a strong paddler like
Gerry, with a full repertoire of boat control strokes, and if you
think your boat needs a rudder for the sort of boating you do, get
a rudder, even if an entire chorus of experts tell you that you're
crazy. Where your needs are concerned, you're the only expert whose
If you're not a good paddler, though, please don't think that
getting a rudder is a substitute for learning to paddle. It
isn'tat least not for long. Folks who rely on a rudder to
short-cut the learning process often find themselves in the same
situation as kids who use training wheels on their bikes. Sooner or
later the wheels have to come offor they fall off. It can happen
to rudders, too. Then you're on your own, and that's when you find out
how well you've learned the basic lessons of boat control. You can't
bluff your way out of trouble in the middle of an open-water crossing.
One more point: the "rudder question" isn't an either-or thing.
There's a middle ground. A lot of designers are taking another look at
skegssmall fins that act like keels and help to keep you going
straight. The Inuit used them to hold their kayaks on track as they
glided toward unsuspecting seals, and today's boaters can go back to
the future. In fact, they can go the Inuit one better. Modern skegs
can often be raised or lowered as needed. Want a little help in a
cross-wind? Drop your skeg. Need to negotiate a tricky bit of easy
whitewater? Raise it.
Skegs. They can give you the best of both worlds, without the
complexity and fussiness of rudders. Now you see it. Now you don't.
Now that's real magicand a tidy solution to the age-old problem
of going straight. 'Nuff said.
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All