This article was written by Connor, one of our founding editors. Connor is a full-time travel and lifestyle photographer with extensive experience in the outdoors industry.
The popular belief with rudders is that they help you to steer your kayak. The truth is, that rudders are designed to help you stay in a straight line.
Although rudders aren’t an essential piece of gear, they can come in very handy. They’re most popular among touring and sea kayakers as they’re often traveling long distances and need to paddle in the most efficient way possible. They’re also the ones most likely to suffer from crosswinds and currents.
If you’re kayaking in an open expanse of water, you’re constantly being pushed in all directions from the wind and currents. Without realizing it a lot of time, much of your energy is spent fighting against this. Of course, when there’s a big current or strong wind, you really do feel it.
A rudder is a blade that sits at the back of a kayak, pivoting from side to side. Generally, you can control it through foot pedals, which will turn it to face the way you want. If the rudder is facing one side of your kayak, it causes more drag, while the other side of your kayak maintains its speed. This is what helps you maintain directional control more easily.
Due to the drag caused, there is a solid argument for going rudderless. You fight hard for your forward momentum and the rudder actually takes away from this. However, many believe the benefit of not fighting to stay in a straight line makes a rudder worth it.
A popular alternative to the rudder is a skeg, which remains fixed and doesn’t pivot.
Firstly, before attempting to control it, you’ll likely need to release it as they are usually locked down for storage or transportation.
Most kayaks with rudders will have a cord that runs from the rudder to the cockpit, within reaching distance. Generally, this line will have a knot near the cockpit for you to hold onto and when you pull it in a certain direction, it will lift the rudder which will help you when you’re landing or going over shallow water.
The directional control of a kayak rudder is done through foot pedals and is fairly simple. If you want the rudder to help you head right, press the right foot pedal. Conversely, if you want to drift left, press down on your left foot. It won’t take you long to learn, but it can’t take a bit of coordination if you’re not used to controlling hands and feet at the same time.
We’re getting into the controversial territory by bringing this topic up. Like we mentioned in the intro, skegs are another popular option for keeping directional control. A skeg can be lifted in and out of the water but can’t be controlled from side to side.
The depth of your skeg in the water will determine how much effect it has on your directional stability. In order to combat crosswinds, the skeg should be partially lowered into the water. To turn downwind, lower the skeg full and the kayak will begin to pivot around the stern (back of the boat).
Unlike rudders, skegs don’t allow you the same level of flexibility when it comes to steering your kayak. Necky Kayaks have done a really good job of addressing this debate in more depth.