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Going Straight - Rudder or Skeg?

by Farwell Forrest

Going straight isn't easy. Even with a double paddle and a well-practiced forward stroke, most kayakers soon find that wind, waves, and currents sometimes make it hard to keep their bows pointed where they want. Cross-winds and following seas, in particular, can bedevil even strong, experienced paddlers. Many boats tend to turn broadside ("broach-to") when big waves roll beneath them from astern, or pivot up into the wind ("weathercock") in gusts.

Staying straight isn't just a matter of convenience. A broach can lead to a capsize or even an unplanned swim. And a boat which weathercocks can be exhausting to paddle. On long trips or open-water crossings, exhaustion can wear you down and make you error-prone. Not surprisingly, the middle of a big lake or a fast tidal stream isn't a good place to start making mistakes.

OK. It's hard for most of us to go straight. What can we do about it? Some simple stuff, to begin with. Load your boat carefully. Keep it on a even keel, neither bow- nor stern-heavy. And keep your heaviest gear out of the ends. Don't carry a lot of bulky deck cargo, either. A big pack acts like a sail. In bad conditions, a gust can spin you right around, despite your best efforts with your paddle.

Choose the right boat, too. Conventional wisdom suggests that long, straight-keeled kayaks are easier to keep in the grove on open water, while shorter, more highly rockered craft are best suited to the twists and turns of whitewater rivers. And it's true—a least some of the time. Despite recent advances, however, boat design is still an inexact science. There's the classic case of Magic, for example. A marvel of (then) state-of-the-art engineering and design, this 1983 America's Cup challenger flunked its tank-test. To everyone's surprise, she slipped through the water more easily stern-first than when she was turned the right way round. Magic, indeed!

Today, of course, we have much more powerful computers and better modeling tools than Magic's hapless designer did, but nature still has a few surprises in store for us. A case in point from my mail-bag: Gerry Adler is an experienced ocean kayaker and ship driver—and a regular visitor to He paddles both hard-shells and sit-on-tops. While Gerry finds his rudderless 9-footer manageable even in "pretty rough weather," it took just one bad day on San Diego Bay to convince him that his big Cobra Tourer needed a rudder. He ordered a kit just as soon as he got back on dry land, and he's never regretted his decision.

The moral of the story? If you're already a strong paddler like Gerry, with a full repertoire of boat control strokes, and if you think your boat needs a rudder for the sort of boating you do, get a rudder, even if an entire chorus of experts tell you that you're crazy. Where your needs are concerned, you're the only expert whose opinion matters.

If you're not a good paddler, though, please don't think that getting a rudder is a substitute for learning to paddle. It isn't—at least not for long. Folks who rely on a rudder to short-cut the learning process often find themselves in the same situation as kids who use training wheels on their bikes. Sooner or later the wheels have to come off—or they fall off. It can happen to rudders, too. Then you're on your own, and that's when you find out how well you've learned the basic lessons of boat control. You can't bluff your way out of trouble in the middle of an open-water crossing. 

One more point: the "rudder question" isn't an either-or thing. There's a middle ground. A lot of designers are taking another look at skegs—small fins that act like keels and help to keep you going straight. The Inuit used them to hold their kayaks on track as they glided toward unsuspecting seals, and today's boaters can go back to the future. In fact, they can go the Inuit one better. Modern skegs can often be raised or lowered as needed. Want a little help in a cross-wind? Drop your skeg. Need to negotiate a tricky bit of easy whitewater? Raise it.

Skegs. They can give you the best of both worlds, without the complexity and fussiness of rudders. Now you see it. Now you don't. Now that's real magic—and a tidy solution to the age-old problem of going straight. 'Nuff said.

Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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