Sea Kayaks: The Real Problem with Rudders

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A version of this article was first published in Paddling Magazine Issue 57.

OK, I’ll be honest. I came up in the world of sea kayaking in the Great Lakes, indoctrinated in the cult of British Sea Kayaking. Every single one of the paddlers that I wanted to be when I grew up were firmly set against rudders. As a younger man, I was steeped in the ways of rudder hatred.

I’ve heard all the arguments against rudders: rudders are dangerous in rescues, they break when you need them most, moving foot pedals make it impossible to brace, rudders inhibit proper skills development, rudders contribute to loose moral virtue and the increase of gout. Rudders are bad. They will give you smelly feet.

A few years have passed, I’ve paddled some fine ruddered kayaks and most of those criticisms have fallen by the wayside. I no longer fear capsize from an abruptly shifting footbrace, I’ve learned to inspect rudder cables to make sure they won’t part at an inopportune moment, and I no longer see ruddered kayaks as a source of moral decay. In fact, I’ve warmed to rudders considerably. I’m happy to admit that ruddered kayaks are faster when racing, more efficient on long expeditions and helpful to beginners who are getting the hang of paddling.

Despite this change of heart, I still think rudders are a poor choice in a versatile sea kayak that will be paddled in a full range of ocean conditions from surf to tide races. You see, rudders have one big problem that you just can’t get around. The real problem with rudders is trim.

Let me explain:

Imagine yourself kayaking off the shore of a beautiful tropical island. Palm trees sway in the breeze and a steady wind pushes your boat toward the beach. You start paddling forward, steering a course toward a headland of volcanic rock. And…your kayak starts turning into the wind.

What the heck is going on? It’s simple.  If the wind blows you sideways, you’re going to drift sideways. If you start paddling forward, the bow of your kayak gets stuck in the water and the stern keeps on drifting sideways. Presto! Weathercocking.

Now, if you are in a kayak with a skeg you’ll want to slide that skeg down little bit at a time until you can point at the headland again. That skeg mechanically changes the bow-to-stern trim of your kayak. In essence it makes the stern sit deeper in the water and locks it in place so it can’t skid out. You could do the same thing by strapping a cinder block to the back deck of your kayak, the skeg just makes it a little easier.

Here you are now, happily paddling along, pointed just where you want to go, skeg in perfect position. Great. What happens if you decide to push the skeg all the way down? Trouble. Why?  Because if you put that skeg all the way down, your kayak will start to turn away from the wind. The trim will be too far toward the stern. You’ll start heading for certain destruction on the black rocks of the headland, complete with wailing and gnashing of teeth.

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A fully deployed skeg will cause your kayak to blow away from the wind.

With the skeg fully down you thrash away on the downwind side of the boat, desperately trying to claw off the fatal lee shore. To no avail. Slowly, inexorably, your bow points toward the pointy rocks. Your mind is filled with visions of smashed fiberglass and sodden sleeping bags.

Yikes. Better pull up the skeg a little bit.

Here’s where we get to the real problem with rudders.

A rudder, on the stern of the boat, fully deployed into the water, acts like a skeg all the way down.

Think about it. If a fully deployed skeg makes your boat turn uncontrollably downwind in breezy conditions, won’t a rudder do the same? Of course it will. If the wind is mild you can counteract this by kicking a little upwind rudder. But if the wind is really howling this won’t work. You’ll find yourself blowing downwind no matter how hard you fight it.

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A rudder in the water anchors the stern of your kayak in a way that is similar to a fully deployed skeg.

Surely there is a way to fix this problem. Of course there is. If you want your ruddered kayak to paddle properly in ALL wind conditions, you need to adjust the trim of the boat so that it is balanced in the wind when the rudder is DOWN.

To do this, you’ll have to move the seat forward until you find the sweet spot that allows the rudder to turn the boat upwind or downwind regardless of the conditions. You’ll probably need to play around with it for a little while. Maybe move the seat forward an inch and then take the boat out in a real howler to see what happens. Then maybe move it forward another inch. Eventually you’ll get to the point where you can turn upwind or downwind with the rudder regardless of the wind speed.

When you get to this point, you’ll have achieved perfect balance–and a kayak that is completely uncontrollable in the wind if the rudder isn’t in the water.

Now you’ve done it. You’ve shifted the trim of the boat so far forward that the rudder must be in the water at all times. If it isn’t your boat will weathercock so fast it’ll give you whiplash. If you are out in any kind of wind at all you had better have that rudder down, because if you don’t you’re in a pickle, clawing away as hard to fight weathercocking as you were before trying to keep off the rocks.

To be sure, aiming uncontrollably away from the pointy rocks is WAY better than aiming uncontrollably towards them, but neither option is quite as nice as a boat that goes where you want it to, when you want it to. A kayak with a skeg can be trimmed to be neutral in the wind. A kayak with a rudder must be trimmed to paddle either horrendously in the worst conditions, or horrendously when the rudder is up. Not much middle ground.

Rudders work great on specialized kayaks that are intended to be paddled with the rudder in the water at all times like surf skis and racing kayaks. They don’t do a good job at balancing a versatile kayak in the wind in a broad range of conditions. If you want to race, by all means, paddle a kayak with a rudder. If you want to explore the sea in all its manifold dimensions, stick with a skeg–and avoid the real problem with rudders.

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The Real Point about the Real Problem

I wrote this piece for Paddling Magazine’s Rock the Boat column. As you might suspect from the name, the column is intended to stir the pot. With this in mind, I was a bit cheeky with the writing and a bit less nuanced about the topic than I could have been.

The result, if the comments are any indication, are that people missed the point.

Only one commenter grasped the core of the argument. All the other comments broke into predictable pro vs con camps.

Too bad.

The point I failed to make clear is that bow/stern trim has a significant impact on weathercocking and that this trim must necessarily be different in a boat with a rudder.

Put a different way, properly trimmed ruddered kayaks weathercock more than boats with skegs when the rudder is out of the water.

Because of the fore and aft trim.

I learned how significant small changes in fore/aft trim can be a long time ago when I shifted the seat rearward in my Pintail to give myself a little more room in the cockpit. Shifting the seat back by an inch completely changed the performance of the boat. It no longer weathercocked. It paddled far better in a following sea. Moving the seat that tiny distance shifted the trim of the boat enough that the stern dug in just a little bit more. The bow was just a tiny bit looser. The difference was dramatic.

As I mentioned in the article, this is all a skeg does. A skeg mechanically shifts the trim of a kayak rearward, anchoring the stern more firmly in the water. Moving the seat does the same thing. Packing heavy in the stern compartment does the same thing.

When I first started kayaking I spent a lot of time in an Aquaterra Sea Lion. My paddling mentors told me I should avoid using the rudder as much as possible so I could build up my boat control skills. Problem was, the Sea Lion weathercocked like a beast. With the rudder up I had a hard time keeping it pointed in the right direction in even the slightest bit of wind.

I thought that it was something unique about the Sea Lion that made this happen. Or maybe my lack of paddling skills. Now that I understand trim I suspect there is a more likely explanation: the Sea Lion was trimmed to be paddled with the rudder in the water.

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At the risk of being redundant I’m going to dig into this one more time.

If you design a boat just right it won’t weathercock very much. It will be neutral in the wind. Mostly this has to do with the shape of the stern and the position of the seat in the boat. The old Nordkapp HM didn’t weathercock because it had a pronounced fin at the stern. It also didn’t turn and would occasionally blow down wind if you loaded it wrong. More recent examples of boats that are mostly neutral in the wind are the NDK Explorer and second generation P&H Cetuses. Most of the time you can get these boats to point where you want them to by giving them a bit of edge. If you don’t want to mess with this you can drop a little bit of skeg.

In a boat like this, if you put the skeg down all the way you will anchor the stern so securely that it will blow away from the wind or “lee cock” like a poorly loaded Nordkapp HM.

If you were to take a Cetus or Explorer and put a rudder on it, you would create a similar scenario. With the rudder in the water you you have the functional equivalent of a fully deployed skeg. Its a big fin, in the water, at the back of the boat. This should not be controversial.

If a boat is trimmed neutral before the rudder goes down, a crosswind will blow the bow down wind. Just like it would if the boat had a skeg.

The thing is, you might not notice this in everyday paddling. With a rudder you’re constantly adjusting course. In mild crosswinds you could easily adjust for the downwind pressure by pushing slightly on the upwind rudder pedal. The wind would be pushing you down. The rudder turning you up.

In strong winds this won’t work as well. The force of the wind will eventually overcome the turning moment of the rudder. Unfortunately, this is only likely to happen when the wind really starts howling. Which is exactly when you need your kayak to respond to the rudder.

If you’re paddling a boat like this you will wonder why the hell you can’t get back up wind. Just like you would if you had the skeg all the way down and had forgotten about it. [This happens more than you might imagine.]

This is why a ruddered kayak must be designed so that it is neutral in the wind with the rudder deployed.

If you trim the boat bow/stern so that it’s neutral with the rudder deployed, it will paddle just fine in most crosswinds and will only require the slightest bit of rudder correction to maintain a course. It will respond to the rudder both upwind and downwind.

There are a couple ways to achieve correct trim with the rudder in the water. One is to position the seat forward to shift the trim toward the bow. A second is to design the boat with a lot of stern rocker so the stern is naturally loose. This is how it is done. If you have a boat that came with a rudder, is almost certainly trimmed like this as part of the design.

If your boat is designed this way it WILL weathercock more strongly with the rudder up than a kayak that is designed to be neutral in the wind like an Explorer or Cetus. This is just the plain truth.

Which takes me back to the Sea Lion. Why was it so uncontrollable with the rudder up?

Because it was designed to be paddled with the rudder in the water.

There I was, beating my head against the wall, trying to keep this damned boat pointed where I wanted it to go. Trying to learn better paddling skills.

I should have just put the rudder down.

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The advice I was getting at the time was coming from people who were paddling boats with skegs. They had no idea that the trim of my ruddered boat was so different from the trim of their skegged boats. So they gave me the wrong advice. And I was frustrated.

I think this happens a lot. Mostly because of a lack of cross pollination of ideas between British boat enthusiasts and rudder folks. If you take a class from an instructor who only paddles skegged boats you’re likely to be advised to paddle without your rudder as much as you can. So you can improve your skills.

Problem is, if you have a properly designed ruddered kayak it won’t paddle right in any kind of wind without having the rudder in the water.

I do like paddling boats with skegs. I do think they’re more fun in the surf and tide races and for rock hopping or exploring sea caves. The fact that a skegged design can be trimmed to be nearly neutral in the wind regardless of whether the skeg is deployed or not makes these kayaks extremely versatile.

That said, I don’t believe rudders are bad. I just think there’s some confusion about how people should approach paddling with a ruddered boat. Especially if they’re interested in developing their boat control skills.

The bottom line is that ruddered kayaks paddle better with the rudder in the water. You should know that going in. It’s fine to paddle one with the rudder up to practice your strokes, but when the wind starts howling you should plan on getting the rudder into the water.

If your kayak has a rudder, you should use it.

Maine
It may be my propensity for doing stupid things in kayaks that makes me prefer boats with skegs…

 

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