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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Steady as She Goes

Rudders — Who Needs 'em?

By Tamia Nelson

November 14, 2006

Real kayakers don't use rudders. That used to be my opinion, at any rate. I was convinced that rudders were crutches for folks too lazy to learn how to paddle. And then I spent a few exhausting hours steering a course about 45 degrees off the wind on a cross-grained lake. If I'd been sailing, it would have been straightforward enough to tack to windward. I wasn't sailing, however. And with only a double-bladed paddle to move my boat, I was making very heavy weather of it indeed. A sharp chop thudded against the bow quarter, and the kayak lurched corkscrew fashion into every wave trough. I struggled to stay on course, alternating broad sweeps on one side with short, choppy strokes on the other. But I was fighting a losing battle. By the time I made it to shore — demoralized, exhausted, and soaked from both spray and sweat — it had dawned on me that I might want to take another look at rudders.

Let me fill in a few details. The epiphany I've just described happened almost 20 years ago. I was paddling a chubby touring kayak and not a sea boat. My little SEDA Vagabond was more at home in moderate rapids than on open water. Even large lakes stretched the boat's capabilities to their utmost, at least in my hands. But a rudder would have helped, particularly when I needed to hold a course in a gusty crosswind. Still, I never fitted one. They weren't easy to find back then, for one thing. And for years after my little adventure on the windy lake, I clung to a river-runner's mind-set. Rudders were for sissies and owners of large folding kayaks. Or so I thought.

That was then. This is now. Times change. There's a lot more to choose from today. In a way, this makes it harder for novice kayakers. That's why folks who are just starting out often ask…

Who Needs A Rudder?

The answer? That depends. Are you turned on by paddling steep, fast-running rivers? Then you don't want a rudder. Or do you intend to spend all your time messing about in swamps and ponds, or fishing the pools and riffles of tiny streams from your boat? You don't need a rudder in those places, either. But if you dream of expeditions down broad, muscular rivers, or hanker to test yourself on big lakes and ocean bays, or plan a lazy beach cruise along a seacoast…if any one of these things sparks your imagination, then there's probably a rudder in your future.

Boat design will also play a role in your decision. (If you're brand new to kayaking and still groping with the language, you'd better check out "Naming of Parts: Kayaks" before reading further.) Long, skinny kayaks with little or no rocker will track better than shorter boats with up-curved ends. On the other hand, turning a long boat takes both more effort and more skill. And a rudder can help here, too. The bottom line? For most open-water paddling, your best bet is a boat that tracks well without a rudder. Long, straight, and skinny are your watchwords. A rudder will still help in holding a course whenever the wind rises and the waves begin to build, however. That's why many long, lean sea kayaks nowadays come from the factory already fitted with rudders, or at least have rudders available as an option.

Or maybe you're thinking about mixing open-water and river boating? Then you'll probably choose a kayak that's a little shorter and a little broader in the beam, with a touch more rocker than a pure sea boat. These kayaks definitely benefit from a rudder. The qualities that make a general touring boat more maneuverable in easy rapids also make it more vulnerable to crosswinds and choppy seas. Without a rudder, you'll find yourself fighting to hold a course.

What's that? You say you're not planning on going it alone? Then you should know that the handling qualities of most tandem kayaks are also improved by fitting a rudder, especially when the partners aren't well matched in strength and skill. If this describes your boat — and your team — a rudder will cut down on the amount of time the two of you spend going in circles and shouting at each other. And that's a very good thing.

Of course, no piece of gear is a cure for all ills. It's important to know…

What Rudders Aren't

A rudder won't make a clumsy paddler into an ace. There's just no substitute for long hours spent working the 'gate, building muscle, and learning the moves. At a minimum, you need to know how to drive your boat ahead in a straight line and how to backwater without veering wildly. You also have to be able to pivot your boat effortlessly (and speedily) to either right or left. And you need to be able to do all these things without a rudder, at least when conditions are reasonably calm. You'll want a reliable high and low brace and a strong draw, too. A rudder can't help you there.

One more thing. Most novices think rudders are for turning. They're not. Yes, you can make a kayak turn with a rudder, but that's not its primary job. A rudder's most important use is to keep you on course, even when wave and wind are trying their hardest to spin you round. In short, a rudder helps you go straight under conditions when going straight would otherwise be all but impossible.

Now that you know what a rudder won't do for you, let's look at the…

The Pros and Cons of Rudders

The virtues of rudders are much debated among boaters. Some very competent paddlers won't use them, while others feel uneasy if they have to brave a Force 2 breeze without one. Before you decide which side you're on, you'll want to consider the pros and cons for yourself.

Pros? We've already outlined a rudder's main job: it makes it easier to stay on course under adverse conditions. This enables you to husband your strength for the important work of getting your boat from Point A to Point B, insuring that you'll reach your destination in the shortest possible time. That's a considerable advantage on a long open-water crossing. A rudder also enables you to carve broad, gentle turns under relatively benign conditions — without missing a beat, so to speak. This is much appreciated by tandem boaters, and by some less-skilled solo paddlers, as well.

Cons? When the blade's in the water, a rudder is a bit of a drag. It slows you down, in other words. How much? Damned if I know. Some. And that bothers a few folks. On the other hand, when the blade's up it catches the wind. Not good. Of course, if the breeze is blowing so hard that the rudder threatens to turn your boat into a wind vane, you'll probably want to drop the blade. Then your problem's solved.

Rudders also break. The cables and pintles are common trouble areas. And a broken rudder can be worse than useless. How is this possible? Think how a dragging brake affects your car's handling. A jammed rudder can have the same effect on your boat. (But there's an important difference: in a kayak you don't have a hundred or more mechanical horses to help you fight the yaw.) Rudders collect weed, flotsam, and fishing lines, too. That can be a nuisance — or it can be a whole lot worse.

OK. Those are the pros and cons. Where do I come down on rudders? I'm for 'em. The drag is negligible, or at least it is at any speed I'm likely to paddle. And when the wind gets up, my rudder blade goes down. That takes care of the wind-vane effect. But what about the possibility of mechanical failure? Well, stuff happens, sure enough, but preventative maintenance — make it part of your prefloat check, and be sure to release the rudder's hold-down before launching! — will keep many troubles at bay. The first-aid kit for my boat takes care of the rest.

What about snagging? Well, most rudder blades will kick up when the leading edge hits something. That helps. So does remembering to cock your rudder up before launching or landing or breaking through the surf line, and whenever you have to negotiate kelp beds or shallows. Come to think of it, my paddle occasionally picks up weed and shovels up muck, too. But I'm not likely to give up using that, am I?

And while we're speaking of flotsam, I've got a suggestion. No, it's more like a request. Whenever you see floating trash, please pick it up and dispose of it properly after you return to land. (If it's small enough to pick up, that is. If you ever meet a drifting trailer that's broken away from the deck of a container ship, you'll have your hands full just staying clear.) Even something as innocuous-seeming as a plastic bag can sicken a sea turtle to the point of death. How? Sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them. Then the plastic film blocks the turtle's gut. So litter does a lot more than look bad. It kills.

Back to rudders. Are you psyched? Good. Rudders make sense for many kayakers. And that leaves only one question:

Which Rudder Should I Buy?

Here's the short, easy answer: Use the one that comes with your boat, or buy the add-on rudder recommended by the manufacturer. And what's the long answer? It will have to wait. That's a topic for another day.

Good paddlers may differ, but at least there's no doubt in my mind. My early prejudice against rudders was way off course. I've had plenty of time to repent, however, and now I'm a true believer. From here on out, any touring kayak I buy will have a rudder fitted. After that, it will be steady as she goes.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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