Skegs vs Rudders

Below is a an interesting article written by Paul Caffyn. He discusses the merits of a rudder over a skeg. Who can argue with a man that has paddled more expedition miles in a kayak than anyone else?

Comments On Rudders and Skegs

By Paul Caffyn

During my very first sea kayak expedition around Fiordland in 1977/78, Max Reynolds and I used small retractable skegs that were attached to a ‘shoe’ or fibreglass sleeve that slid over a Nordkapp stern. Only the size of a cigarette packet, the skeg was rotated into position in deep water by the other paddler. It evolved during the South Island trip into a deep shark fin shaped skeg, mounted on a ‘sleeve’ that sat loosely on the stern for launching and was pulled into position with a cord from the cockpit. Shock cord, from the stern to the skeg, allowed the skeg to ‘retract’ out of the way for landing. For following, or quartering seas from the stern, the skeg improved the kayak’s tracking in a straight line. For the start of the Australian trip I used an HM Nordkapp, with the extended keel stern, but after a gripping experience of being unable to turn up-wind on a flat sea in gale force winds, I cut the extended bit off and reverted to using my shark fin skeg.

Prior to the trip I was intrigued by the deep draught, over the stern fibreglass rudders that the Tasmanian paddlers considered not as optional extras but as integral parts of their boats. Photographs of the seas they paddled and accounts of long distances achieved with rudders in diabolical conditions, led me to thinking about trying a rudder.  When I broke the skeg blade off south of Brisbane, a friend helped me build a sturdy Tasmanian style rudder out of aluminum. Still with a mind set about kayaks and rudders, we mounted the rudder on a fibreglass ‘shoe’ or sleeve, that slid over the Nordkapp stern, and was held in place by the deck lines. Well, the mind set disappeared with the first long surfing run north of Brisbane, and the rudder stayed in place for the rest of the trip. It saved my life on several occasions, the most crucial being the overnighter along the Baxter Cliffs when I was caught by a savage cold front. When I limped into a beach at the end of that 106 mile drama, my knees and heels were rubbed bare of skin down to the exposed blood vessels, such was the battle to steer clear of being smashed into the vertical cliffs.

The statistics speak for themselves in showing the benefit gained from the addition of a rudder: Melbourne to Sydney:

  • HM stern – 30.6 miles per day Sydney to Brisbane
  • Skeg – 34.3 miles per day Brisbane to Cape York
  • Rudder – 39.2 miles per day

Contrary to the notion of a rudder being: ‘not for steering, but to trim. Sea kayaks are steered with the paddle, like all kayaks and canoes.’ I use my rudder for steering – the paddle solely for forward propulsion.  When a paddle is used for corrective steering strokes, either sweep or paddling on one side, forward propulsion suffers and the normal paddling cycle is upset.

I must qualify this and state the design, structure and mounting determine the difference between inefficient and efficient rudders. My rudder blades project 12″ below the keel line. I have never broken a rudder – bent the blade once off North Queensland in a big surf, but straightened it out over my knee on shore and it was good for another 6,000 miles.

Situations where I have found a rudder to be invaluable include:

  • manoeuvring in congested sea ice or iceberg choked seas
  • ferry gliding across channels with fast tidal streams
  • coping with boils and eddies in overfalls
  • steering when the wind is too strong to paddle
  • fast manoeuvring in congested shipping lanes
  • hugging a reef fringed coast when paddling into a strong tidal stream flow
  • surfing in front of following seas

Another advantage of a sturdy deep draught, over the stern rudder is a surprising increase in overall boat stability.

The most magic sound I hear at sea is a humming vibration generated during fast surfing runs at 15 knots+, either when surfing boat wakes or in front of following seas. Sheer magic!

© Paul Caffyn, 2000

Thanks Paul!

Largely due to my racing background I used a rudder on both the Inuk (South West Peninsula Sea Kayak Challenge, Preseli Challenge, Roof of Britain Kayak Expedition) and C-Trek (UK and Ireland) before spending more time learning about skegged boats. I subsequently used a skegged Nodkapp for my most recent Vancouver Island circumnavigation.

Like Paul, I have found that you are defintely more efficient in a ruddered kayak, especially if the kayak is designed to take a rudder and not just added as an afterthought  You can maintain good form, conserve energy and thus crank out more miles in a ruddered boat.

KC MacKay helping me repair my rudder during British Isles expedition, Scrabster, Scotland

KC MacKay helping me repair my rudder during British Isles expedition, Scrabster, Scotland

The downside to ruddered boats is that when the rudder breaks (which they often do during prolonged expeditions) then they can be a real pain. Often a kayak designed to perform with a rudder is fairly hopeless when the rudder doesn’t work. This is normally not such an issue with a skegged kayak where the skeg has malfunctioned. Simply because there are less components and moving parts, it is normally easier to do field repairs on a skeg than on a rudder, but this does largely depend on the design so always look for a skeg or rudder design that requires the minimum number of spare parts and ensure that you carry the tools you will need. The P&H skeg design is an excellent example of skeg system that is really easy to do field repairs on. The best rudder system is probably the SmartTrack system but there are lots of parts! Avoid sliding track systems for ruddered kayaks. It leads to bad form, making it difficult to transfer power from the paddle to the kayak through the feet. A gas pedal or tiller system is much more efficient.

For me the main benefit of a skeg over a rudder is that a boat designed to have a skeg is often more manoeverable and playful than a kayak designed to be used with a rudder. And since the majority of us use our kayaks not just for expeditions but for regular ‘play’ in rock gardens, tide races, surf, coastal touring, etc. it is perhaps better to have a personal kayak that has a skeg.

If you are fortunate enough to be able to have a quiver of kayaks to chose from, then I would advocate a ruddered kayak for expeditions and a skegged kayak for regular paddling.

Sean Morley

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