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Rudder, Retractable Skeg or Nothing?
"Tracking" is the ability of a boat to travel in a straight line. All other things being equal, a kayak with a long straight keel tracks better than a short boat with lots of rocker. That’s a fact, but it’s not the only factor. No boat, power, sail, or paddle, is free from tracking problems in all conditions.
Among paddlers there is a purists’ argument going something like this: "The Arctic cultures who perfected the art of kayaking fitted their boats with neither rudder nor skeg. They relied on artful paddling technique and kayak shapes that track well on their own." It’s a powerful point. Your first defense against “weathercocking" and other steering problems in wind and waves should be a good kayak design and good paddling skills.
However, paddlers who are just beginning, paddlers who race, those who paddle long distances, or those operating in rough water often benefit from a tracking aid. So what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of these three options?
- Good control of weathercocking and steering in wind and waves with little skill.
- Good for racing and long distance paddling.
- Can be pulled out of the water when it's not needed.
- Essential for a sailing kayak.
- Somewhat fragile, for example, if dumped in surf.
- Malfunction can result in less control than no rudder, since a beginning paddler may have neglected to develop sweep/turning stroke skills.
- Push/pull footbraces inhibit boat control by weight shifting and thigh bracing.
- Complicates wet re-entry over stern.
- Simple, few mechanical parts.
- Can be lowered only as far as necessary to tune tracking to conditions
- Solid fixed footbraces for better boat control.
- Frees up stern area for easier rescues compared to rudder.
- Skeg box inhibits storage space.
- Leaking or damaged skeg box is possible, though unlikely.
- Can be in the way of stern re-entry.
- No alteration to the boat; more traditional.
- No mechanical failures or maintenance.
- No added weight.
- It's the cheapest option.
- In conditions where there is severe weathercocking, corrective strokes can be tiresome.