What is a kayak skeg and should you have one on your kayak? It depends on your boat, and what you’re using it for. Skegs and rudders are typically only used on ocean kayaks but can come in handy when using an ocean kayak on a lake, river, or other flat water environment.
Skegs, fins, and rudders should never be used for white water, or even shallow calm water as they can jam, get caught on rocks or at the bottom of a shallow passage.
When used on the right boat in the right kind of water, however, skegs are awesome. Try to use a kayak with a skeg for the wrong water, and you’ve got problems. While skegs are a popular option for sea kayaks they are part of an ongoing debate between which is better, a skeg or a rudder.
Any part of a kayak that extends out of the water will catch the wind. Anything that catches the wind and moves the boat is really acting like a sail – which does the same thing. The amount of the sail’s surface area, and its distribution, whether it’s the side of the boat, or an actual sail, will have an effect on how the boat will respond in wind. A well-designed kayak should “weathercock.” That’s when the wind, blowing from the side during your forward motion, causes your boat to turn into the wind – it cocks into the wind or weather side (as opposed to the downwind, lee side) – hence the name “weather-cocking.”
Low profile kayaks have very little surface area above their waterlines and present “low windage” because there’s not much area or “sail” for the wind to act on, so any weather-cocking is milder or almost non-existent. In the best-designed ocean kayaks, weathercocking is a relatively modest effect. Bigger kayaks, or non-ocean going kayaks, present a larger surface area for winds. Most paddlers find it easy to overcome with strokes, edging, and/or the use of a skeg or rudder.
What is a kayak skeg?
A skeg is sometimes called a “fin,” is a retractable blade, similar to a rudder, that drops out of a compartment in the rear, or “stern” of a kayak. Skegs cannot pivot from side to side like a rudder. However, most can be raised and lowered vertically. The skeg’s depth is adjusted via a slider control mounted by the paddler’s thigh. A cable or rope connects the slider to the skeg blade, allowing for more control of skeg depth. The skeg is lowered or used in order to help balance out the forces of wind or current on the kayak.
Related: What is a Kayak
A skeg is a great aid to improve boat handling in windy conditions. When compared with a rudder-equipped boat, some sea kayakers would also say that a skegged boat generates a greater feeling of “direct connection” between kayak and paddler, while other paddlers would disagree. It’s subjective. You’ll form your own opinion once you’ve experienced both. It’s simply a matter of which works better for you. There are pros and cons to both skegs and rudders.
Skegs work by allowing the paddler to fine tune the amount of surface area that the skeg blade presents in the water. The depth of the skeg in the water determines the amount of influence it has on the boat. By lowering or raising the skeg blade, a kayaker can balance out the forces of wind or current on his or her boat. In high winds or, it tends to be the stern that is pushed around more than the bow. By dropping a skeg a paddler can pin or set the stern more firmly in place. This ability to control the stern controls the boat’s tendency to turn into the wind. The general rule of thumb is:
- Drop the skeg all way down if you want to turn downwind or maintain a course downwind. Dropping the skeg fully will “pin the stern” and cause the rest of the boat to pivot around that point, ending with the bow pointing downwind.
- Retract the skeg fully if you want to turn or hold a course directly into the wind. Because a kayak’s normal tendency is to turn into the wind, let the boat do its thing and leave the skeg control alone.
- Lower the skeg only as much as needed for crosswinds or quartering winds. Make micro adjustments on the fly with a skeg’s slider control. This will let you get the most neutral handling possible.
Aesthetically, the clean upswept stern of a skeg boat is classic. Having a clunky looking rudder hanging off the back can ruin the romance of an unencumbered kayak. But looks don’t matter much when high winds are pushing you all over the ocean.
While some kayak skegs can be raised and lowered, there are skegs called “fins” which can be attached to the boat and removed or inserted when needed, although it’s a decision made on shore as they’re difficult to install or remove when the boat is in the water.
Non-lowering Kayak fin/skeg
What is a kayak rudder?
A rudder, in contrast to a drop skeg, can pivot side to side once it is dropped into the water. A rudder works by creating drag. When tracking properly it keeps the front (bow) in line with the back (stern), but also creates a small amount of drag. The tradeoff is that your boat tracks straighter.
There is only up or down, in or out of the water with a rudder. It can’t be adjusted in increments as a skeg can. A rudder, however, allows the paddler to easily and quickly change direction. The rudder is controlled by foot pedals that connect to the rudder via cables. This setup allows a paddler to very effectively steer the boat with his or her feet while continuing to paddle. The result is a system that maximizes a kayaker’s potential for speed and distance.
There are various ways to mount a rudder. Sea kayak rudders can be flipped up onto the stern deck for storage when not in use, or permanently mounted at the end of the stern. When a rudder is mounted at the end of the stern it’s subject to being lifted out of the water in high waves, rendering it useless as long as it’s in the air.
The problem most beginning kayaks make is using the rudder to steer with. While that’s what rudders on other boats do, on a kayak the rudder should only assist with steering when needed, and not 100% of the time the boat is in the water.
A rudder or skeg is designed to aid in the steering of a kayak, not to do all the steering. Its intention is to minimize the need for making continual correcting strokes that can cause fatigue and discomfort in the paddler.
Most rudders have a “lift line” that runs up alongside the cockpit of the kayak. This line lets the paddler “lift” the rudder up out of the water when approaching shore, or moving into shallower water. The line is great, when paddlers remember to use it. That loud scraping noise and jolt when the rudder hits the bottom of the lake, or seabed is usually an excellent reminder to lift the rudder. If the rudder becomes jammed, bent, or broken, it can usually be replaced.
Some boats have a Through-Hull rudder. A Through-Hull rudder cannot be raised and lowered, it is always down. Extreme care must be taken in shallow waters, kelp beds and beach landings and launchings so this rudder is not broken or bent. Some kayaks have a similar mechanism that does move up and down in a compartment. These rudders are less vulnerable to impact with submerged obstacles, but can still be jammed or broken.
Which is better—a rudder or skeg?
Where distance, efficiency, and racing are concerned, a rudder will trump a skeg every single time. Rudders have a very strong corrective component; you can deflect a tremendous amount of water with a rudder. Rudders are immensely superior to skegs, especially in rough or windy seas. The ability to steer the boat and prevent it from turning in the wind by actively trimming the rudder with your feet means a paddler can keep powering forward, catching waves and linking rides. Paddlers without rudders will struggle to hold their course. Worse, they’ll slow down because they’ll have to stop paddling to move forward to use their paddle to rudder their boat.
What are the advantages or disadvantages of skegs or rudders?
As with any gear or device, there are pros and cons. You need to consider them and decide, based on your boat, needs, strengths, weaknesses, and use which is the better option for you.
Here are some pros/advantages for skegs:
- There are fewer moving parts. This means there’s less stuff to fail, break or go wrong.
- Lower maintenance than a rudder
- If you’re using an adjustable skeg, when it’s not deployed, the skeg has no surface area to expose to the wind.
- Footbraces are not attached to skegs, only rudders. So, your footbraces don’t move meaning you can push hard with your feet while bracing/paddling.
- Skegs generally have less drag than a rudder when deployed.
- You can add an after-market, non-adjustable skeg for as little as $15.
The cons or disadvantages of skegs:
- They have less corrective ability than a rudder
- Your skeg cable can sometimes kink and make the skeg difficult to deploy/retract
- Your skeg box requires good workmanship to avoid leaks
- Your skegs can’t “steer” the boat when there is no wind
- Skegs are less intuitive to understand
- Your skeg can exert drag on a boat under calm conditions
Pros and advantages of rudders:
- Rudders can be used to “steer” the boat, regardless of wind.
- Rudders are almost a necessity in a tandem sea kayak, which is generally very difficult to turn otherwise
- Rudders can be used with a kayak sail to great advantage
- Rudders have an extremely strong corrective component that can overcome high winds and even a total lack of skill
- Rudders are very easy for beginners to understand and use
The cons or disadvantages for rudders:
- Rudders usually have slightly more drag than a skeg when deployed.
- Rudders make it easy for some beginners to get lazy and never develop good turning/boat control strokes.
- Most rudder designs create some slack in the foot pedals that affect the direct turning ability.
- Rudders can become jammed or bent when running your boat on shore, or in shallow water.
- If you depend on rudders you may not develop the paddling and steering skills you need in case your rudder breaks.
- Rudders have a lot of moving parts and require more care and maintenance than a skeg.
Figuring Out How To Improve Efficiency With A Kayak Skeg
The whole point of having a fin, skeg, or rudder is to help you maintain as straight a line through the water as needed, especially when the wind and/or water is rough. While it’s impossible for all but the most experienced boaters to keep a perfectly straight line for any distance, the goal is to work towards that end. Keeping your boat on a straight course simply means less fatigue and effort for you, the paddler. On still water or quiet seas, it’s fairly easy to use your paddles to keep your boat pointed straight. It’s when the wind picks up, or the waves get choppy that steering and tracking straight can become an issue.
One technique for keeping a boat on course when it’s being pushed to the left or right, whether it’s from the wind, waves, or current, is to alter each paddling stroke on the affected side to push the bow back onto course. For instance, if your boat is going left, paddle harder on the left side to push the bow back to the right side. This is a good technique for short stretches but doing so over a long distance can be very tiring as it’s hard to hit a good rhythm. This is when a rudder can be offset a bit to the right to help keep the boat going “straight” while you maintaining equal strokes on both sides of the kayak. This is where “helping you maintain a straight line,” is better understood. The rudder isn’t being used to “steer” the boat, it is being used to adjust an action of the boat, which helps you steer the boat, but without making exaggerated paddling strokes on one side or the other.
How to select the best kayak skeg, fin, or rudder
Rudder and skeg systems come with various reviews, but no matter how highly a system is touted, check out the rudder system or skeg before you buy. On-water demo days held by most kayak stores or manufacturers are one of the best ways to see if a particular set-up works for you. Or, borrow your buddy’s boat to see if a rudder or skeg feels right for you. Most kayaks from a tour or rental company will not have rudders or skegs because of the extra maintenance and high use their boats get. However, take your time and look for a rental place that does have rudders and skegs on their boats if you can’t find a friend, or demo day.
Things to check with all rudder and skeg systems:
- Make sure you have solid foot bracing capabilities
- Check for durability of parts – metal vs plastic
- Check for adjustability
- Check the quality of the rudder mechanisms, including the cable connections, adjustable/locking pedals, and the mechanics of the rudder movements.
- Rudders have more moving parts than anything else on your kayak. Make sure it’s built well and works smoothly.
- Don’t just push on the system with your hands. Sit in the boat, in the water and paddle it.
Flexibility and adjustability are critical. A fixed skeg, one built into the keel of the boat or one added afterward, is an integral part of that hull. Paddlers quickly learn how to handle a boat with a built in fin or skeg. An adjustable skeg offers a paddler an opportunity to fine-tune their response to the wind, current and waves, but takes practice and awareness. Because an adjustable skeg changes depending on how much of it is in the water during any condition, the paddler must learn how to use it at each stage of its deployment.
Selecting a Rudder or Skeg Kits
If you bought your kayak without a rudder or skeg kit, or want to turn your 14-foot or greater sit-in kayak into something you can steer, there are aftermarket rudders and skeg kits you can install yourself. Things you need to know before buying a kit:
- What do you intend to use the rudder or skeg for? If you’re planning to fish with your kayak, a rudder is your best option. It will allow you to move your boat, or keep it from turning when you don’t want it to.
- Are there kits available specifically for your model kayak?
- Does the retailer have someone who can install the kit for you if you don’t have the time or skills to do so?
- Does your kayak have the hull construction that allows for a rudder or skeg?
- Does the skeg allow you to attach or detach the fin from the mount? The Docooler 1pc Large Size Skeg Tracking Fin Kayak Fin Watershed Board does, as do others. Make sure the fin also has a cord or way of attaching the fin to the mount so you don’t lose it if it falls out.
Two popular and easy to install kayak rudders are:
VGEBY Kayak Rudder, Plastic Boat Tail Rudder Foot Direction Control Tackle for Watercraft Canoe Kayak Boat
Hull design and kayak skegs vs rudders
Most of the time, your kayak will go straight, especially if you’re a beginner only venturing out on still, relatively calm water. Eventually however, there are things that may make your boat veer off course, including fatigue, back pain, but most likely wind, tides, currents, and waves.
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In situations where the elements, or your body are making tracking a straight line a nightmare for you, rudders and skegs can make paddling so much easier. You don’t need them to make your kayak go straight if you paddle properly. It’s just that life is much easier with them. Think of driving a car without power steering versus a car with power steering. Same sort of thing. It’s possible to steer your car, but easier with a little help.
Paddling a straight line, using less energy, and maintaining a track becomes easier when you use a rudder or skeg. Probably the most important thing to understand about skegs and rudders is that both are beneficial in a touring boat, but it’s up to the individual paddler to determine what their needs and preferences are. The choice between using a rudder versus a skeg really comes down to what type of handling characteristics one wants out of a sea kayak, what kind of hull design you have, and your paddling strengths and ability.
Things to consider when picking a skeg or rudder:
- The longer the boat, the more important it becomes for most folks to have some help with windy conditions.
- Both rudders and skegs are designed to help the boat go straight when the wind wants to make the boat turn.
- Certain sea kayak hull designs lend themselves better to a rudder application while other designs work better with skeg applications. In general, a very responsive touring kayak will function best with a skeg. A touring kayak that tracks like it is on rails will benefit most from a rudder.