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The Skeg and Rudder Explained

Kayak group

So many kayaks….

As you look at different kayaks, you may notice something a bit different with each of them. Some kayak models you come across may have a device on it which you may know of the name, but do you really know what it is used for – or how to use it? Today, I will be covering the difference between a skeg and rudder.


What do they do

To fully understand the dynamics of how these two function. Let’s first get a little technical with understanding basic physics as they act upon kayak hulls. Painting a picture of the paddle environment: calm winds, still water, no current, no waves. As a kayak sits still on the surface of water – there is equal pressure exerted along the entire hull. Since there are no opposing forces (mother nature/movement within the kayak), that kayak will continue to remain [almost] perfectly still. When we paddle forward, we are basically trying to ‘fly’ a kayak, with the water being our sky (might be a reason we sit inside a cockpit). Many laws of physics were used when designing kayak hulls as well as airplane wings – there is similarity between the two designs. Much like a taking off from a runway, in order to get that plane in the air it works by four main forces: Thrust (our paddle power), Gravity (the weight of our kayak and ourselves), Lift (high and low pressures on the hull), Drag (that wake the kayak produces). Active paddling creates all these forces directly upon the kayak hull. As we move forward on that calm water, the bow creates a high-pressure force upon the hull. The water passes under us and breaks surface tension, and creates a low pressure and turbulence at the stern. This can be clearly seen at the stern as it creates a wake, and at times, some bubbles can be seen. This has a reverse effect when one paddles backwards – the low pressure will be placed upon the bow, as the high pressure is now at the stern.

Without opposing forces at play (winds, waves, current) and with a really great paddler in the cockpit – with the ‘perfect’ paddle form and paddle stroke- that kayak will track [mostly] perfectly straight. Let’s throw an opposing force of wind into play on that same lake. The winds have pick up to 10 mph from the north, and we are paddling to the west. Without any change in our paddling technique (paddle stroke, edging, or shifting our weight) the tracking of that same kayak tends to veer towards the direction of the wind. What is going on here? This is called weather cocking. This is a perfectly natural effect which most, if not all kayaks will have. Remember that low pressure you are creating when you paddle – imagine this as a slight anchor dragging your stern, with wind this becomes more noticeable and apparent. When you stop paddling into this wind and come to a complete stop, eventually your kayak will rest with either the port or the starboard side facing the direction of the wind.


Differences between the two

So, how does one manage maintain directional control when there is a wind? One can either work strongly against an opposing force, work with that opposing force to your benefit, or just give up and go home. Personally, I like to work with the opposing forces and work with nature – mother nature and the water will always win, as she is the boss!

Which brings us back to the topic at hand. The skeg and rudder assist the paddler in maintaining a straight paddling direction. There is a slight mechanical difference between the two and what actions they can perform. Both are located near the stern of the kayak, and are manually deployed by using a mechanism attached to either cables or rope.

The skeg is a stationary item – meaning, it does not move in any other direction other than up (stowed) or down (deployed). The skeg can be adjusted in its depth in the water when deployed. A fully deployed skeg will provide the best forward tracking abilities, however decreases lateral adjustments made by the paddler. For the paddler who wishes to have tracking as well as more directional control and adjustments – deploying it half way or not fully deploying it will provide this outcome. The directional control is up to the paddler as they either edge, change paddle strokes, or shift their weight.

skeg stowedA skeg deployed

The rudder is usually mounted on the top deck of the stern. It has two positions – either stowed, or deployed. When deployed, direction is controlled by pushing on the foot pegs (or tipping your toes forward) on the same side one wishes to go. Pushing on the right side fully will place an angle onto the fin and creates resistance within the water – pushing you in that direction. A constant pressure on both feet will keep the rudder straight.

the Rudder


When to use them

When is the best time to use them, and how does one use them to assist when paddling? Best rule of thumb to know is when traveling with the wind in your face (and that is the direction you wish to go) leave them stowed. Like I had mentioned before, the kayak loves to be paddled into the wind, and will be drawn towards that direction. For winds to your back (downwind), deploy your skeg or rudder to maintain that straight line. For broaching winds (from the side), one may want to find what degree/depth in the water works best for the skeg. When using the rudder, a slight continuous push of the foot peg on the side the wind is coming from will keep you straight.

When launching and landing, it is highly advisable to stow these BEFORE you get close to shore. They can be damaged by the shoreline, can injure people, or can injure you if there are breaking waves and you become separated from your kayak.


It is clearly your decision  to have a kayak with a skeg, or a rudder (or both), or if you wish to use them while paddling. A skeg will maintain your course and provide the paddler the ability to play with boat control. A rudder can be used as a tool to help grasp the directional control abilities of the kayak without heavily relying on paddler skills. Whichever one you choose, experiment with them – find out how they can assist you in your paddle experiences.


For the Paddler Within….

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