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