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To Rudder, Or Not To Rudder, That Is The Question.

December 3rd, 2015 by

There has been a crazy rudder debate going on among certain kayakers for decades.  In case you are not aware of it, I’ll fill you in on the issues.


On one side there are the kayaking purists that say “A well designed kayak should be easily steered by hull steering and paddle strokes, and that kayak makers add rudders to their boats simply to compensate for design flaws.”  Basically, “A real kayak doesn’t need a rudder.”  Many of these purists do however acknowledge the benefits of using a retractable skeg (a non-turning fin located near the stern) in certain conditions to improve tracking, especially on rockered kayaks, in quartering seas and on off-the-wind legs.  But essentially, they say “no” to rudders.

On the other side of the debate are rudder lovers who say “ Additional steering?  Sure!  I’m in!  Where do I get one”.

So… why all the fuss about rudders?  Human nature, I guess.  It seems that if we don’t have anything to debate about we can’t prove how dominant we are and life becomes boring.  I’m pretty sure it’s just a “guy” thing.

But there must be more to it than that, you say.  Well… sure.  Let’s dig deeper into the topic and carefully look at both the disadvantages and the advantages of rudders.

First the disadvantages:

Rudders are mechanical things that can fail.  True.  They also require periodic inspection to make sure all the parts, especially the cables, are in good working condition.  They are expensive.  No argument there.  They can be a pain to install.  That’s for sure.  I once spent the better part of a day fitting out a kayak with pedal controls and a rudder.  They add drag that can slow you down.  True.  The fact is that anything you hang off your boat is going to create at least some drag.  Plus, if the rudder is compensating for an unbalanced or poorly designed boat, or, if the helmsman is heavy footed with the pedals, the amount of drag will be increased.  It’s also true that rudders are often found on unruly boats, and that beginners tend to push the pedals too much.  Additionally, some rudder control pedals need so much leg motion that they prevent the paddler from feeling “locked in” to the thigh braces, resulting in less hull control.  And lastly, rudders often have a way of looking out of place on a traditional kayaks.  True enough.

Hmm… Have I left anything out?  Probably… but let’s move on.

Now for the advantages of rudders:

They provide additional steering by using your feet!  You have to admit, it’s a pretty cool idea.  By steering with your feet at least one hand can be removed from the paddle and put to other uses like handling a fishing rod, taking photos, eating lunch, tending the sails, holding a VHF, etc.  It’s a simple mechanical device that has proven over the years to be amazingly reliable.  While they do add drag, it should also be noted that rudders can effectively reduce or even eliminate “yaw” (the side to side motion of the bow with each paddle stroke) thereby increasing the forward efficiency of each stroke.  And on long kayaks, especially in quartering seas, a rudder will help the boat stay on course without applying extra, energy robbing, corrective strokes.  On most big tandem kayaks, a rudder is almost a necessity.  It can often be difficult to coordinate the necessary strokes needed to turn the craft (They don’t call em’ divorce doubles for nothing!).  Also, when used on short “squirrely” (erratically moving) kayaks, or on heavily rockered (banana shaped) kayaks, a rudder can dramatically improve the tracking.  And when used on extremely long, fast kayaks having little rocker, a rudder can transform an extremely difficult boat to turn into one that will… well…at least give you some hint of steering.  As for the rudder pedals, it’s true that many pedal mechanisms allow one’s leg to slip out of the thigh braces, but it should be noted that there are very good mechanisms out there (like the Smarttrack System) that allow a fixed pedal position so one can retain that “locked in” feeling of control.

Regarding rudders and kayak-sailing, I like using them.  Others, like Patti, prefer to use them only intermittently when they need to have their hands free, or not at all.


Are they necessary?  Well… no and yes.  They are only necessary if you feel they are necessary.  Some boats sail beautifully without a rudder.  Typically these are well-designed, well-behaved paddling boats to begin with.  Others can definitely benefit from a rudder.  Each boat has its own “personality”.

Most people would agree that a rudder makes learning to kayak-sail much easier.  By keeping the boat on course with one’s feet, it’s easier to concentrate on sail handling.

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With the Kayaksailor rig, the leeboards can be balanced to the center of effort in the sail, maintaining the directional stability of the boat, and on well-designed hulls, rudders normally aren’t necessary. That said, I sail a nicely designed boat, and still like using a rudder for a variety of reasons, mainly for fishing and photography, but also for just kicking back and enjoying the ride.  I also like to use it for swell riding to keep the bow heading down the line of the wave.

In my mind, the decision of whether or not to use a rudder really boils down to the “fun” factor.  If it’s more fun to use a rudder, use one.  If it’s more fun without it, don’t use one.  Because when you really get right down to it, it’s all about having fun on the water.

Please feel free to leave a comment.

And Happy Sailing!

If you would like more information about kayak-sailing, feel free to contact us at info@kayaksailor.com

The next post will be on the six ways of steering a sailing kayak.  Stay tuned…


10 thoughts on “To Rudder, Or Not To Rudder, That Is The Question.

  1. We wouldn’t be without our rudder on our “Old Town Twin Otter” kayak when we are long distance paddling and loaded with camping gear, but not sailing. In these situations we both prefer to use single beaver blade ash paddles. Because of the rudder, each paddler with a single paddle can paddle on whichever side they prefer and can change sides when they want without adversely affecting their partner. However, when sailing double with our Kayak Sailor rig, and using the rudder, the forward paddler controls the rudder and paddles with an Aleut double paddle while the aft seated crew does not paddle.

  2. Ruder oder nicht?
    Auch als angefressen Finn Segler versuche ich mein Boot ohne Ruder zum steuern. Luven mit Kränkung im Lee, und abfallen gegen Luv.
    Ich denke am Bordseite ein Paddel befestigen wäre optimal.
    Congratulation für die Realisation vom Rigg Kayaksailor bin total begeistert.

  3. Hello,
    I’m about to purchase a used 15′ old town tandem and was curious about a rudder. Funny I should see your comment. I will be using it for backcountry camping as well and short sea trips with my fiancé. Can I ask what make model was the rudder you used? Also, I could be wrong but as far as I know the otter doesn’t have mounts or holes for the rudder to be rigged…was this an issue upon install? Never even heard of kayak sailing until today, but would love to know what sail kit you used on it as well? Thanks eh

  4. I am purchasing a Pelican Unisom 136 tandem Is there a rudder unit that will work on it and how much is it. The kayak sail on this sight is it easy to install and how much is it.

  5. Hi, We like using the Smarttrack rudders, mainly because of the toe-pilot controls. They can be adapted to most boats. There are a variety of models as well as gudgeons to fit most stern shapes. Feel free to shoot us an e-mail info@kayaksailor.com We will do our best to help. 🙂

  6. I love sailing my kayaksailor on Long Island Sound. But I have found that when a 15 kt gust hits I often need to headup fast in order to keep from going over. Bracing with the paddle on the leeward side makes things worse.
    Also, riding the small waves is a thrill, but should be even more fun with a rudder. I am in the process of installing the Perception rudder kit on my 14′ Catalina. Wish my arms were longer.

  7. Hi Woody,
    Glad to hear that you are enjoying the sailing! It is fun. Yes, heading up can ease the pressure in the sail, also sheeting out. Whenever we brace while sailing we lean to windward with our paddle. It’s not really a brace because we are not pushing down on the water with the blade, but quickly extending our arms with our torso to windward definitely helps counterbalance in a gust. Bracing to leeward only causes more heeling. That said, standard bracing can be effective while sailing downwind on a dead run. Agreed, the rudder should help with your wave riding. And I know what you mean, installing a rudder can be frustrating at times. If you have access to a small child, you can always ask them to go down below decks in order to reach where you can’t! 🙂

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