If you've ever rented or bought a kayak, you've definitely been asked the question - do you want a kayak rudder or skeg?
Endless of long discussions have explored the question and the funny thing is that there is not one answer as to what is best. It simply depends on what you are going to do!
With neither rudder nor skeg, your kayak will want to steer upwind, a phenomenon called weather cocking. This means that as long as you are not one of those who love to paddle against the wind, you will have to compensate for the wind's effect on your kayak, which in the long run will be both difficult and tiring for your body.
But is it rudder or skeg that suits you best? And how do they actually work?
How does a rudder work?
On a sea kayak, the rudder is at the back and is lowered into the water when it is to be used. It is connected with rudder lines to the pedals in the cockpit, which allows you to easily control the rudder with the help of your feet. Press right to turn right or left to turn left.
The picture above shows a simplification of how a rudder works. When the paddler presses the pedal with his right foot, the rudder is angled out to the right (up in the picture). Water then flows towards the rudder which causes the water to move to the right. The power from the water is transferred to the stern of the kayak, which then receives power to the left (down). The kayak is turning to the right, but in fact the stern is moving to the left.
Since it is the currents of the water that give the kayak power to turn, it is necessary for the kayak to move forward for a rudder to work. The more speed, the more water power = faster turn.
How does a skeg work?
The skeg is a "fin" that sits at the stern of the kayak. It can be adjusted up and down but cannot move sideways like a rudder. The skeg can therefore only be used to compensate for the wind's effect on the kayak and you must use your paddle and various steering strokes to turn your kayak.
A common misconception is that it is only on or off. The truth is, it's a real precision tool that you can fine-tune to make your kayak do exactly what you want, regardless of weather conditions.
The rule of thumb I usually teach people when I instruct is that if you want to turn upwind should you pull up your skeg (slide the control unit forward). Do you want to turn down from wind should you pull down your skeg (slide the control unit backwards). So - if you want to paddle straight ahead but feel that your kayak is turning upwind - pull the skeg down a little. If you feel that the kayak is turning down from the wind - push the skeg upwards a little. This way you can fine tune until you get your kayak going straight regardless of the wind conditions.
To really learn and understand, I recommend testing and seeing if you can turn your kayak with just the skeg and get it to go where you want. It's a great exercise to gain an understanding of how you can work with the skeg. Personally, I always work very actively with it when I paddle and often fine-tune so that my kayak always does what I want.
The theory behind the kayak's weathercocking (deeper knowledge)
The reason the kayaks turns towards the wind, weathercocks, is because the bow of the kayak (the front of the kayak) gets stuck in "new water" as it is propelled forward while the stern slides through turbulent water and becomes much easier to move sideways. The result is that when the wind pushes on the kayak, the bow will be much harder to move laterally than the stern, causing the kayak to weathercock. Or rather, the stern moves away from the wind faster than the bow does.
What happens when we use the skeg is that we make it more difficult for the stern to move sideways. When we reach equilibrium - it is just as difficult to move the stern as it is to move the bow sideways - the kayak will maintain a straight course.
Rudder or skeg - Which should I choose?
As you now know, rudder and skeg are two completely different things and it is difficult to compare them against each other. It is simply about how you enjoy paddling and how you intend to use your kayak.
If you prefer to focus on forward paddling and have the kayak propel forward quickly, I would recommend a kayak equipped with a rudder. If you like to paddle more playfully and steer the kayak with your body and paddle, I recommend a kayak with a skeg.
Personally, I like to paddle with just a skeg when I'm out for the day. If I make a longer trip, or am going to make a larger crossing, I like to have rudder.
When you're going buy a kayak it is simply a matter of thinking about how you intend to use it. Today, many kayaks are equipped with both skeg and rudders, which can be very practical as you don't have to choose. Personally, I am paddling a Melker Rödlöga which has both rudder and skeg. The rudder is folded up the majority of the time as I think it's more fun to paddle with just the skeg. However, I do not regret for a second that my kayak has the rudder mounted as it is incredibly nice when I want it!
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