How to Choose Between a Rudder and Skeg

Any keen ocean kayaker will be aware that rudders and skegs serve a similar purpose but are quite different pieces of equipment. We’re going to explore how you can choose the right one to suit your kind of kayaking and make sure you get the best possible experience from the equipment that you buy.

Either a skeg or a rudder can be used to improve the steering and handling of a kayak. The biggest difference between the two is that skegs do not move from side to side, and only go up and down, whereas a rudder does both. 

A rudder is most useful on boats that do not turn easily. A skeg is used when the stern is freer, providing stability in windy conditions.

What Is The Difference Between A Rudder And A Skeg?

When trying to make a decision between a rudder vs. skeg, it may help to understand them both, so let’s start by looking at what they are and how they work on sea kayaks and touring kayaks.

A rudder is a small blade that is fixed to the kayak and can be controlled by cables that the paddler holds onto. The rudder blade is then turned using cables, and this turns the boat left or right.

The rudder cable can be connected to the foot pedals in the base of the kayak by the foot support, and the kayaker can use these to steer the kayak with their feet instead of the paddle. Rudders give kayakers good turning ability and make it easier to control the kayak and turn sideways quickly, if necessary.

In contrast, the kayak skeg can be internal or external. An external skeg will be mounted on the boat the same way that a rudder blade is, but it doesn’t use cables to be turned to the right or left, and only moves by retracting up into the hull. 

An internal skeg serves the same purpose, but sits inside recessed housing in the kayak’s hull, sometimes called a skeg box, beneath the kayak, rather than being mounted on the back. The blade in a skeg system is then connected via a cable to a sliding lever that the paddler can control with their hand.

The paddler can deploy the skeg blade or retract it into the hull when they aren’t using it. This is useful in shallow water where a skeg would be damaged on rocks or gravel.

Both the rudder and the skeg are controlled by stainless steel cables. The rudder cables are attached to each foot pedal, while the skeg cables are generally a hand-controlled cord system.

The major difference in a rudder vs. skeg is in the movement of the two blades. Rudders are specifically designed to give kayakers more control over where their boats go and help them to plot a straight path in a particular direction, even when dealing with cross winds or quartering winds.

A skeg, on the other hand, is designed to stabilize boats in the water. It can give boats more stability when dealing with strong winds on an especially windy day.

Why Might You Use A Rudder?

So, when are rudders of most use to kayakers and in what situations may you find them most helpful?

Rudders are useful if the kayak you are using is very difficult to turn, and your paddling skills need some assistance. They also serve to keep the kayak steady in the water, providing water resistance at the stern, but they are predominantly used as a means of turning the boat.

This is the main advantage of a well-designed sea kayak with a rudder; it allows you to steer the boat using just the foot pedals. While it is, of course, possible to steer a kayak using paddle strokes alone, this is much more tiring. 

Even a good paddler will likely find themselves exhausted if they are constantly having to make major paddle corrections. This can be even worse if you are constantly fighting with the wind or being pushed sideways into choppy waves. 

Kayak manufacturers realized this, and provided foot pedals as a solution. A rudder both decreases the workload and allows you to transfer some of it to your legs through each foot pedal, saving your arms some of the work.

This means you can put your energy into paddling forward, rather than putting so much effort into turning strokes and corrective strokes to stay on course. This is why even very skilled paddlers can benefit from using a rudder, although some purists prefer not to add them to their kayaks and believe it is better to control the boat only through paddling.

Even if you are paddling in gentle conditions and flat water that isn’t exhausting, using a rudder improves the kayak’s ability to turn and can make kayaking more relaxing and fun. And for racing kayaks and sea kayaks, rudders are basically essential.

A rudder gives you a lot more control over your boat, as well as increasing its stability in the water and giving it good tracking ability. Kayaking without a rudder is perfectly possible, but most people find that a rudder is of use to them in at least some circumstances.

If you enjoy kayaking at sea or in any circumstances where you will need to continue adjusting the direction of your boat (ie., if it won’t stay on a straight course due to currents, waves, and wind), rudders make the experience much easier, and can save enormous energy expenditure.

Why Might You Use A Skeg?

In what situations might a skeg be particularly useful? In general, these are a good way to increase the stability of your boat and make it more resistant to blowing downwind and being pushed off course.

Given that sea kayaks are very long, they can be a challenge to maneuver, and if you are also grappling with windy and wild conditions, it can be even harder to control solely with paddling.

One of the biggest challenges that a sea kayaker has to handle is the wind, and this can be extremely frustrating. If you have ever tried kayaking out in the open ocean, you have probably come across a phenomenon called weather cocking.

This happens when your sea kayak ends up turning into the wind, rather than away from it. That might sound surprising, but there’s a simple explanation for why it happens; in traditional kayak design, the stern end of the kayak is often much freer from water resistance than the prow of the boat, which experiences slightly more drag.

As you paddle, the prow of the boat is caught in the bow wave (the wave created by the boat when you paddle forward) and this reduces the effect of the wind blowing it, making the front more resistant to being pushed off course. The faster you are paddling, the more bow wave will be created, and the more water resistance will be acting on the prow of the kayak.

The stern of the sea kayak, however, does not have much water resistance working on it, and so when the weather is windy, the rear deck of the boat swings away to turn downwind.

The front then turns into the wind as the back swings around, and this is known as weather cocking. It is very challenging for kayakers to deal with because it makes it nearly impossible to go in a straight line, especially when out at sea, where the wind is likely to be strong.

You can counter weather cocking in some situations by making use of controlled paddle strokes and weight distribution, but often, wind is hard to handle and even an experienced paddler in a well-designed kayak may struggle in bad conditions.

Some kayaks have more resistance on the stern, but for kayaking out at sea, a skeg is a great way to increase your kayak’s wind resistance at the stern. If you use a retractable blade, it can be fully deployed out of the rear hatch when the wind is bad, and the narrow, fin-like blade will give you more control in the water.

The skeg will simply increase the water resistance on the stern, preventing it from blowing to the side as easily. With the bow wave on the front and a skeg on the back, you will have significantly more ability to work against the wind.

The skegs on many sea kayaks are also adjustable, so you can increase or decrease the resistance so that the bow and stern are affected by the wind to the same degree. This makes it very useful to a skilled kayaker, who can adjust the kayak skeg as much as they need to.

You can even use the skeg to turn the kayak in windy conditions if you are skillful about it, by increasing or reducing the amount of skeg that is beneath the level of the water and using the wind to propel the kayak in the desired direction by making the front turn more readily than the stern.

However, a skeg cannot help you turn when the conditions are not windy. It doesn’t work like a rudder, and is no use for improving your steering in a sea kayak except when it is windy.

What Are The Cons Of Using A Rudder?

There are some situations in which using a rudder could be a disadvantage, although not too many. After all, even if you would rather not use a rudder because it is “cheating” in some way, having one can provide a safety feature that gives you the option, and you are not obliged to use it.

The biggest con of using a rudder is that, like anything you add to your boat, it sticks out and is easy to damage, especially before you are used to using it. You may find that you knock or bump it against rocks, or that you accidentally run it into something when you are moving the kayak backward.

You have to get into the habit of raising the rudder when necessary, and keeping an eye on it — or at least being aware of it — when maneuvering around rocks.

The other potential problem is if your kayak rudder fails, or breaks (which is where skegs have a slight advantage; they are fixed and therefore unlikely to break). If you have gone into more challenging conditions than usual because you are depending upon the rudder, this could be a problem.

It is therefore important to always check that your kayak’s rudder cables are in good condition before taking the kayak out. You should promptly replace any that have started to fray or show signs of wear.

It is a good idea to carry the tools to repair the cables while out on the water if possible, especially if you are depending on having use of the rudder. Carrying spare cables as a backup can also prove to be very useful.

Always test a new rudder in calm conditions before you risk taking it out into a more challenging environment. Overall, however, there aren’t many disadvantages to using a rudder, and you should consider adding one to your sea kayak even if you don’t intend to use it often.

What Are The Cons Of Using A Skeg?

You might be wondering how a skeg fares by comparison. Again, the disadvantages of using skegs on sea kayaks are fairly minor.

Compared with a rudder, of course, the skeg has a significant disadvantage. It is not useful in helping you steer unless there is a strong wind, so if you just want assistance dealing with tight corners or staying on track, it is not helpful at all.

It also suffers from a similar disadvantage to the rudder in that it is relatively easy to damage the skeg if you accidentally back into a rock or bump it against something while kayaking. However, if you use an internal skeg, it can at least be retracted when you are not using it, and as the skeg sits below the kayak, it is easier to avoid bumping it.

Being below the kayak does introduce a different problem, however. Skegs often pick little stones up into the skeg well, and these will jam it. 

Trying to use the slider to free the stone could result in damage to the cable, so it’s best not to do this. Instead, you will need to get out and free the stone manually.

A final disadvantage of skegs is that they take up very valuable space inside the kayak (for the skeg box) and this can be frustrating if you need space in your boat — especially if you only use the skeg once in a while.

Summary

Using a rudder or skeg is similar in that they give you more control in the water, but if you want to increase your control over the kayak’s steering, the rudder is definitely the best option. A skeg will give you more stability and greater stability on a windy day, but will make no difference to your ability to steer.

Both a rudder or skeg will majorly help you out if you are interested in sea kayaking or if you regularly use touring kayaks in windy weather, but remember that you need a rudder for improved steering!