Six Ways of Steering Your Sailing-Kayak
Six, really? Yep… and perhaps with a better understanding of quantum physics we’ll even find a few more, but for now six is all I can come up with.
While an entire book can be written on the topic of steering a sailing-kayak, I’ll do my best to keep this as short as I can and at the same time try not to leave anything out.
First, you should know that in order to have a nicely steering kayak one should begin with having a balanced boat. I’m referring to fore-and-aft balance, and if you would like to learn more about this topic here is a blog post on the subject.
Steering a sailing kayak is nearly identical to steering a non-sailing kayak. The only difference is well… the sailing aspect. And because sailors are always thinking about the wind, they think of steering in this way as well. A non-sailing kayaker might say “let’s turn into that bay” While a kayak-sailor might say “Let’s reach upwind and then bear-off into that bay.” The motion of the craft is nearly always considered in relation to the wind, either upwind or downwind. So keeping this in mind, let’s get down to the nitty gritty:
There are six basic ways to steer your kayak: (1) paddle steering, (2) rudder steering, (3) hull steering, (4) leeboard steering, (5) skeg steering, and (6) sail steering.
These can be classified into four categories: Steering that moves the boat by redirecting water around blades. Steering that changes the “footprint” that the boat makes in the water. Steering that moves the location of the boat’s center of lateral resistance. And, steering that moves the center of effort in the sails.
Sounds a bit complicated, but it isn’t. It’s easy!
Let’s begin with steering that moves the boat by redirecting water around blades. (1) Paddle steering and (2) rudder steering both fall into this category. Paddle steering a sailing kayak is probably the most common method of steering and is accomplished using two basic strokes, the forward sweeping stroke and the stern rudder stroke. For upwind sailing rigs like the Kayaksailor with leeboards near the bow, the bow rudder stroke is less effective, so I won’t go into it here.
To perform the forward sweeping stroke, simply reach forward, insert the paddle blade alongside the hull, sweep it out and back in a wide arc. This will have the effect of pushing the bow in the opposite direction of the sweep. So, in order to move the boat to the left, make your sweep on the right side of the boat; and to move it to the right, sweep on the left. Even though sweeping strokes are very effective, you may need to use multiple strokes to get the job done.
To perform a stern rudder stroke, simply insert your paddle blade in the water alongside the stern and angle it so that water is being directed away from the stern. In contrast to the forward sweep, you will want to put the blade in the water on the same side as the turn, meaning that if you want to turn left, put the blade in the water on the left side of the stern. Generally, only one rudder stroke is needed to alter the boat’s direction. And for the stroke to be effective, the boat needs to be already moving forward.
An important difference between the two strokes is that a forward sweeping stroke will generate forward boat speed, while a stern rudder stroke will create drag and slow the boat down. For this reason paddle-sailors often use sweeping strokes while sailing to windward when forward efficiency is most important, and rudder strokes while sailing off-the-wind when boat speed comes more easily. A rudder stroke can also be quite effective for very tight turns, as well as for slowing the boat down to avoid collisions. It’s also a useful method for initiating a jibe.
Next is rudder steering. Rudder steering is probably the easiest method of steering so I won’t spend too much time on it here. Basically if your boat has a rudder installed, pushing on the right foot pedal will turn the rudder and make the boat will go to the right, and pushing on the left pedal will make the boat will go the left. Simple. Like the stern rudder stroke, forward motion is necessary to make the boat turn. And, also like the stern rudder stroke, pushing it too hard will create excessive drag and slow the boat down. For this reason, employing small rudder movements are preferred for small course corrections. But reducing speed isn’t always a bad thing, especially for collision avoidance, so if you really need to slow down, by pushing the rudder all the way from side to side it will act as a water-brake and will help to slow forward motion.
The next type of steering is one of the most useful methods, yet least understood by the novice paddler. I’m referring to (3) hull steering. Hull steering is remarkably simple. You lean the boat in the opposite direction of the turn. Want to go left? Lean the boat to the right. Want to go right? Lean the boat to the left. Easy. Like using a rudder or performing a rudder stroke, the boat needs to be moving in order for the boat to turn.
Most sailboat sailors know that when a sailboat is heeled over excessively it wants to turn away from the heel and round up into the wind. Hull steering is one of the main reasons for this.
Some boats hull steer better than others, and to explain why, it’s important to understand how hull steering works. It works by changing the shape of the boat’s footprint in the water. Since most kayaks, and sailboats for that matter, have narrow bows, wider middles, and narrow sterns, they create a footprint in the water that looks something like this:
A boat will make this symmetrical shape as long as it is sitting flat in the water. And when the water moves around this footprint, it will move symmetrically around the curves on each side, allowing the boat to travel in a straight line.
Now the footprint takes on an asymmetrical shape with the right side maintaining the hull’s curved shape, while the inside changes to more of a straight line. An asymmetrically curved shape like this wants to move through the water in the direction dictated by the hull’s curve. In this case to the left.
Below is what the footprint looks like when the boat is leaned to the left:
A tip for aggressively hull steering in gusty wind conditions is to always lean the boat (and your body) away from the sail. This puts your body weight in a better position to counter balance the sudden heeling force in the sail.
It should now make sense that the very best hull steering boats have very curved hulls. I like to think of these as “feminine” boats, boats with “hips.” Some of the worst hull steerers are the masculine ones with long, nearly straight sides. Though this type of hull can be quite fast, it can also be very difficult to turn.
Let’s move on to methods of steering that change the boat’s center of lateral resistance. (4) Skeg steering and (5) leeboard steering fall into this category. First let’s look at skeg steering.
A retractable skeg is a non-turning fin normally located under the stern. It is typically found on sit-inside touring kayaks, but can also be found on some recreational kayaks. There are two types of skegs, fixed and adjustable. The adjustable skeg retracts up inside the hull, and since these are the most useful for steering we will concentrate on this type.
The photos below shows a skeg both retracted and deployed.
But before we delve into how to skeg steer, it’s helpful to understand the concept of a boat’s center of lateral resistance.
The following is a simple way to visualize it; Imagine yourself standing in knee deep water, and with one hand, you push your kayak sideways through the water. Suppose that the boat is moving perfectly sideways, with the bow and stern traveling exactly the same distance; That exact place where your hand touches the boat is just above the boat’s center of lateral resistance. If instead you were to have put your hand closer to the bow and pushed, the bow would have moved farther than the stern, and therefore your hand would have been forward of the boat’s center of lateral resistance.
Now, instead of you pushing sideways on the boat, imagine the wind is pushing sideways on the boat and you are sitting in the cockpit. If you were to drop a skeg down into the water under the stern, what would happen is that since the skeg has its own lateral resistance, the boat’s overall resistance would be shifted back toward the stern and the bow would be pushed downwind.
So, basically, the way to skeg steer is to drop the skeg down when you want to turn the boat downwind, and to raise it up when you want to steer upwind.
Most retractable skegs have a sliding control knob along side the cockpit, allowing for precise control of how much skeg extends down into the water.
On a balanced kayak, it usually takes only a small skeg adjustment down to make the boat turn downwind. It should be noted here that if you have both a skeg and a rudder, as we do on our composite boats, having the skeg too far down will reduce the efficiency of the rudder because it keeps the stern from moving sideways.
Next is leeboard steering. This too changes a boat’s center of lateral resistance, except in this case instead of the adding resistance to the stern with a skeg, you are now adding it forward on the bow. By dropping the leeboards down, the bow will be prevented from sliding downwind.
So if you want to turn downwind, raise the leeboards up a little, and if you want to turn upwind, lower them down.
Balancing your leeboards to the sail is very important for upwind kayak-sailing, so if you haven’t read the post “Balancing the Leeboards” yet, please take a moment to read it.
Finally, the last type of steering, (6) sail steering, is steering that moves a sail’s center of effort. This steering method is used on boats with fore and aft sails, and, in the case of the Kayaksailor is only used when the rig has the genoa added. By trimming each sail independently, the overall sideways pulling force in the sails can be moved either in front of or behind the leeboards. Unbalancing the rig in this way will turn the boat either downwind or upwind.
So, for instance, if you are on a beam reach with the wind coming from the side and your sails both have wind in them, by loosening the mainsheet and spilling all the power from the main, the genoa will now have all the power, and because the genoa is located forward of the leeboards, it will pull the bow downwind.
In general, if your intention is to turn downwind, try easing the mainsheet. Conversely, if you want to turn upwind, loosen the genoa sheet and spill all the power from in front of the leeboards. Now the mainsail’s power will be aft of leeboards, causing the stern to slide downwind, allowing the bow to head up into the wind.
Sail steering only works when the wind is coming over the side of the kayak and works on some points of sail better than others. It is very effective on a beam reach, mostly effective on a close reach, not so effective on a broad reach, and doesn’t work at all on a dead run.
So now that you know the six different ways of steering — paddle, rudder, hull, leeboard, skeg, and sail — you have six useful tools at your disposal to make your boat turn.
While any one of these can make a boat change direction, an experienced kayak-sailor will often use combinations of these tools to efficiently steer their craft. What combinations work best for you and your boat is up to you to find out.
Fair winds and happy sailing!
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