Which is better: a rudder or a skeg?? This debate has been raging ever since these devices were implemented in sea kayaks. For years I have fallen on the side of the skeg but recently I have opened my mind to rudders too. The truth is that both tracking devices have their place when used correctly in the appropriate situations. Here is my take:
Let us start by defining the differences between a rudder and a skeg and by describing how to properly use each device. A rudder is a directional aid with directional control. Most sea kayaking rudders are attached to the stern of the kayak by a pivot point and angular direction control is gained via cables that run inside the boat to sliding foot pedals. Pushing on the right foot pedal turns the kayak to the right and vice versa. In contrast, a skeg is usually mounted to the hull slightly forward of the stern and does not offer angular directional control. Despite these differences, both devices are used in the same way: to aid in tracking when your course takes you askew to wind and current.
There are times when a rudder is clearly superior to a skeg. One of these occasions is for multi-day camping trips where dry storage space is at a premium. In this case the rudder does not take up valuable space in the rear compartment as the skeg does. Also, the added weight of the gear causes the kayak to sit lower in the water which can alter tracking characteristics making the directional control of the rudder handy. Another occasion where a rudder is handy is when you’re paddling in an area where the water can become suddenly shallow. The kick-up action of the rudder will save it from damage if you are not paying close attention whereas a skeg could be damaged or jammed. Finally, there are some boats out there that are down-right difficult to control without the aid of a rudder; racing kayaks, surfskies, and other longer kayaks come to mind.
By and large the skeg will suffice as a tracking aid in most situations including most day trips where gear loads are light and maneuverability is paramount. The first thing that I really like about skegs is that they are out of the way and do not clutter the deck. Certain re-entry methods (such as the cowboy scramble) are easier to perform on a skeged boat whereas a rudder would be in the way on the back deck. The second thing that I really like about skegs is that they are easy to deploy and retract from the cockpit. It’s really a matter of poor rudder-control design but I have found myself turned around sideways on numerous occasions trying to pull-up a rudder. This puts you in a vulnerable position to capsize especially if your brace and roll are sub-par. The up-down action of the skeg control so much smoother. One important word of warning concerning skegs is that cable controlled skegs are susceptible to jam if forced back into the skeg box while deployed. This is frustrating fix at best. Being mindful of your skeg position or choosing a rope-controlled skeg will prevent this problem.
The most important message here is that both rudders and skegs have their place as tracking aids. Their utility is limited in that they are mechanical fixtures that can break down and one should not rely on either device to keep the kayak tracking straight. The best tacking “device” is a toolbox full of efficient and properly utilized paddling strokes. Remember, modified sweep strokes will help to keep you on course even when your tracking aid decides to take a break.
Happy and safe paddling!