Rudder or skeg – or both?
A well-designed kayak handles nicely with or without a rudder. A rudder is a choice for those who are used to rudders or want to focus on the maneuverability of the craft.
We use the SmartTrack rudder on Axis kayaks and surfskis – in our opinion the best there is, in efficiency, ease of handling and reliability. The foil-shaped blade, the sturdy rudder head and the easily adjusted pedal system with its combined fixed/moving pedals, is ideal for both the surfskis and the sea kayaks. A classic surfski deep under-hull rudder would have been even more efficient, but for these surfskis and kayaks it is vital to avoid the major disadvantage of an unprotected fragile device in a very exposed position.
A rudder is the faster option, hence their ubiquitous use on racing crafts. Rudder steering means that the paddle can be used for one purpose only: to propel the kayak forward with maximum efficiency. Unfortunately it also means that many paddler never will realize the formidable repertoire of maneuvering efficiency that comes from stroke geometry, weight distribution, leaning etc.
A skeg can be adjusted to compensate for every combination of wind speed and direction, and hull speed. Retracted it is protected in shallow waters and does not interfere with the maneuverability of the craft.
It has less friction overall than a rudder and none of the added turbulence of an angled out rudder. A disadvantage may be that the skeg box inside the hull intrudes on the usable volume of the aft compartment – more or less depending on the position of the box. This will be a compromise between the hydrodynamical optimum (far forward) and usable volume (far aft).
While a rudder may hide quite severe handling peculiarities in a hull as well as compensate for a paddler's lack of skills, a skeg needs a well-designed hull to be efficient, and gives the paddler the incentive to become very competent in handling the kayak.
We use the very well-engineered skeg system from Kayaksport in Finland – reliable, efficient, with low friction and easily maintained.
There is an old and very simple basic rule. "Hard to turn – fit a rudder. Hard to stay on course – fit a skeg". Axis kayaks are very maneuverable, and would thus indicate the need of a skeg rather than a rudder. But since the introduction of surfskis, things have become a little more complex. A surfski is extremely maneuverable and use a rudder to control tracking as well as for maneuvering. The Axis hybrid hull leaves you with a choice. A rudder focuses on the surfski-qualities of the craft – maneuverability, superb control in waves and exciting performance. The skeg focus on the sea kayak qualities – relaxed long distance touring, calm and predictable movements and a craft that keeps on track without constantly working the rudder pedals.
To have both skeg and rudder, as many production kayaks have, is not the panacea it promises to be. The two devises work against each other: the skeg reduces while a rudder adds maneuverability. Lifting the rudder to experience skeg-paddling turns the kayak into a weather vane, needing the skeg fully deployed to counter the wind pressure on the rudder blade, which is not what skeg paddling is about. Skeg down when rudder paddling will compromise the rudder efficiency.
So chose the one option that suits your paddling style and preferences – and say no thanks to the alternative. And don't worry – should you change your mind along the road, it is easy to switch back at any time.