Rudder in the Surf

Hey people, recently picked up a Riot Brittany 16.5 and took her down to the beach for my first ever sea kayaking experience. Spent the first couple hours in flat water getting used to it before taking it out to sea. Was a beautiful calm day with no wind and hand an amazing and relaxing time just paddling for a few hours. Went back the next morning to have another go with a fair bit of chop and changing tide. Maybe only a .5m swell so thought it would be ok. Noticed immediately that it was much rougher and that I couldnt track very well at all (hadn’t used the rudder yet) so i dropped the rudder and noticed some difference in tracking but at the cost of a fair bit of trouble from waves coming in from the side, with the rudder down it seemed to affect the kayak a lot more and I eventually rolled, managed to roll back up only to get knocked over the other side and which point i pulled my skirt and bailed.

Just a couple of question to the wiser here:

  1. is it common sense that with a rudder down you will get issues with waves from the side? or am i doing something wrong? How can i overcome this?
  2. Do most people use the rudder to actually steer or just to counter the current from straight tracking?

    Thanks people!

Rudder in the Surf
Do my questions not make sense?

my experience with rudders
my experience with rudders in the surf is not a good one. In my early days I relied on a rudder for steering and knew little about boat control with edging and paddle strokes.

After breaking off several rudders I now no longer use kayaks that have rudders. You could tape your rudder to the deck (in the retracted/folded over mode) before a decent wave might snap it off. Of course, not all paddlers experience the same problems as I have with their rudders. I guess it might depend on the size of the waves?

I would suggest it’s more you
I would suggest that the getting knocked over part is simply you mishandling the waves. Naturally, with the rudder down vs. the rudder up, the kayak behaved a little differently. You were able to handle one behavior a bit better than the other for whatever reason. But I would suggest you look at what you did with your body, kayak, and paddle, and work that out so that it doesn’t matter whether your rudder is used or not in terms of capsizing.

Once you get that figured out, then you can start experimenting with whether or not you prefer your rudder deployed in different situations. But the idea that you can and can’t stay upright in waves, or that you can or can’t handle your kayak in waves, and that it might have to do with rudder deployment, just doesn’t strike me as a good focus.

Any reason you would be more likely to capsize? With a skeg or rudder deployed, the kayak has a better hold on the water, and is less likely to skid, for better or worse. If you’re not in particularly solid command of your kayak, and you’re used to the bottom skidding sideways to a degree in front of the wave, and you deploy something to hold the kayak more static in the water, I can see where it could cause you to tip over. More appropriate and comfortable edging and/or leaning, and fluid bracing ability, should prevent you from living that uneasy on the edge of balance.

rudders vs rudder strokes
1. is it common sense that with a rudder down you will get issues with waves from the side? or am i doing something wrong? How can i overcome this?

Learn steering strokes. Once you have skills to paddle in waves you won’t need or want the rudder. In coastal paddling, no one uses a ruddered boat or if they do is stays in the stowed position. Deployed rudders end twisted piles aluminum the first time you get side surfed into the beach.

2. Do most people use the rudder to actually steer or just to counter the current from straight tracking?

They are useful for keeping the boat tracking straight in cross winds and racing when you don’t want to lose any speed using steering strokes.

Some thoughts
In smooth waves coming from the side, rudder down should not affect you negatively in the general case. It certainly should not cause you to roll over - the contrary, a nice rudder in the water increases stability as it slows down the rolling motion.

Where a rudder might cause you to go over is if you are being pushed from the side by a foam pile - the rudder might dig in the green water and flip you sideways. Edging will not help much if the rudder is still in the water.

Front-surfing with a rudder is easier if the rudder is in the water, as long as you keep straight enough and don’t let the bow burry too deep. If the bow locks-in deep and causes you to beginto broach sideways to the wave, the rudder will not have enough power to slide the stern around to correct - in such casese youmight be better off without a rudder as you might beable to slide the stern with “stern rudder” paddle strokes more effectively.

You can still edge and stern rudder along with the kayak’s rudder, as long as you are not fighting the kayak’s rudder with your edging and stroke efforts - the rudder will just help your efforts be more effective or eliminate the need for wasting your efforts on steering altogether -:wink:

Rudders will make your kayak more affected by moving water, but again, once you get used to how they do get affected, you can use them to steer your kayak more effectively thanwithout them (as long, again, as you stay within the effective zone of the rudder and you are not fighting it).

Did this ever happen to you?
A. Your boat gets lifted up with the stern end way OUT of the water and you try to steer with the rudder. Only there is zero effect, because the rudder is out of the water also! I had that happen with a mere wind wave on a lake in my first year of paddling, and it convinced me there were better, more reliable ways to maneuver a boat.


B. Sometimes the rudder pops right out of its stowed position, under hard foot pressure. That one was pretty much the nail in the ruddered-boat coffin for me. Because this means that whether deployed or stowed, the rudder can cause problems.


C. And then there was the foot-entrapment by the rudder cable while practicing paddle-float re-entries. Non-fixed pedals that slip back while unoccupied cause the cable to gather too much slack and droop into a trap-like bend on the floor.

I know you didn’t ask “rudder vs. no rudder”, but for paddling in surf the above problems seem like dealbreakers.

Rudders, surf, turning.

– Last Updated: Oct-29-12 8:32 PM EST –

1. is it common sense that with a rudder down you will get issues with waves from the side?

As above, issues with waves from the side are you not knowing how to brace into the wave to handle that. But... a rudder adds to your issues in two ways. One is that the water you are already allowing to push you around has more surface to push. The other is that you may be distracted by having to fuss with rudder controls, which while it is not necessarily fatal isn't doing anything to help you stay upright and in control. That is all about your edge on a wave face, not rudders, so why add the fuss?

2. Do most people use the rudder to actually steer or just to counter the current from straight tracking?

Beginners and people who race - a pretty disparate group - tend to rely on a rudder for steering. Beginners do because they can't edge and racers do because it is more efficient to do that in terms of time. The large crowd between those two of general touring paddlers tend to either stay in rudder mode for various reasons, including ease of handling a heavily loaded boat for a long tour, or find that they'd rather rely primarily on edging than deal with the fuss of a rudder. Hence all the skegged sea kayaks out there.

Skegs can be useful for turning if you also play with the wind to free an end and let it be blown in a desired direction, but that's a whole different discussion. Skegs are similar to rudders in their ability to help manage wind.

I personally have a larger issue with rudders in surf, which I think pikabike mentioned. It is a sharp edged object - some of them metal - connected to wire cables, all of which could be a lot more dangerous to become involved with or whack in the surf than the bare and unadorned surface of the kayak itself. I never had occasion to take my first, (oops! I meant) ruddered, sea kayak into the surf. But if I had the rudder and cables would have been tied down, wrapped and padded.

Speaking of whacking - I hope you were doing this with a helmet.

Surf Zone and Sea Kayak
I took a surf zone kayaking class and the one thing they told me that sort of stuck was that at some point in a sea kayak, you will broach. You will turn sideways to the wave.

Keeping a sea kayak headed straight in surfing a wave is very hard and is a special skill that needs to be learned. So is handling a broach.

I don’t think that you will know if the rudder is useful in the surf until you actually learn more about surf zone kayaking.

That said, with the rudder down, it will hang below the bottom of the boat and might make it hard to brace into the oncoming wave. The rudder will keep the bottom of the boat in place in the water and the wave would be pushing the top of the boat and your body over. In the surf during a broach, you normally would lean into the oncoming wave and brace as it eh wave pushed you sideways.

Others with more surf expertise could describe this better and maybe have some first hand knowledge about how the rudder will act in surf situations.

I use a skeg now but when I had a ruddered boat, I used it to keep straight in the wind. Of course steering with the rudder down requires using the rudder since paddling strokes don’t have much effect.

That thing about the rudder being out of the water might be true depending on conditions. Someone watching you might be able to tell you more.


P.S. That surf zone class was loads of fun and I learned a lot. I highly recommend it since a book or video can’t watch you and tell you what you are doing wrong. I’m a self-taught roller but I don’t think I would have managed getting past the initial learning curve without personal instruction.

More Information Needed to Help ?
Were you really paddling constantly through the surf zone or were you paddling through choppy water with some breaking wind waves and confused seas?

In really rough confused seas, a rudder can catch unexpectedly and cause momentary issues with control and balance. Normally if its just chop and regular beaking waves it’s not too bad to compensate, but in really rough water a rudder becomes almost useless. You’ll find that most kayakers who play in tide races, rough water and surf don’t use rudders.

I’m not a big fan of rudders in the surf. When broached, as someone stated, the rudder may impact your ability to react, but more importantly, I’ve seen them hit bottom in shallow water. Since the rudder on a broached boat is perpendicular to the wave action, all the force lands on that tiny piece of metal and it isn’t designed to withstand lateral forces of that magnitude.

Generally, one of two things happen here - either the rudder digs in the bottom and is damaged/destroyed as the boat attempts to use it as a pivot point, or the rudder remains intact, and the boat pivots around the rudder. Neither is a particularly good result.

Note that when a boat is pushed from behind, the rudder is effectively useless. Rudders help to maintain the tracking of the boat/ship because the rudder is encountering a counter force which it deflects at the rudder angle. It is the water pressure against the side of the rudder which makes it work and there is very little of this pressure when the boat and water are moving in the same direction.

If you live near a shipping lane as I do, you will see that large ships require tugs when traveling with the current because the rudder effectively has no stationary water to push against. Tugs are not used when the ship it fighting the current because the extra force against the rudder actually improves ship handling.

So, when leaving shore, it’s fine to deploy the rudder whenever conditions warrant, but when coming in through the surf, it is pretty much useless and may cause a capsize.

Rudders are intended to improve tracking over long distance cruises where myriad forces (wind, current, waves, etc.) may impact the ability of the hull/paddler to continue in a straight line.

A, B and a bit of C
same as you I experienced A and B but not so much of C.

My rudder pedals where fixed (gas type) but the rudder lines were a bit of a pain when doing rescue reenters.

Rudder in the Surf
Wow thanks so much to all of you for your responses. I think what I have realized is it was just the kayak broaching on a wave, which is apparently quite normal and nearly inescapable. The fact I hadnt broached with the ruddder up was probably due to the fact they were smaller waves, or I was lucky, or I was just more comfortable to that sliding feeling as people have mentioned. The reason why I rolled was because I freaked out when the kayak broached and didnt brace into the wave. You have no idea how grateful I am for all this information and advice. Plus even just knowing that a kayak will always broach at some point on a wave just means I can look for when that happens and get ready to brace, rather than just freak out when it does happen. Many thanks to you all, Owen.

My experience has been that surfing a wave and using a stern rudder to counter the tendency to broach works reasonably well. There is a lot of force at work when the boat starts to surf and it requires good bracing and timing to counter the tendencies to broach.

When water piles up on the beach, especially after large waves, it has to flow back down the beach into the surf. This creates a current (called an along shore current) which impacts incoming waves. The bow of the boat will tend to turn in the direction of this current. A stern rudder (or low brace) is generally sufficient to counter this. The boat will definitely broach if the low brace is on the wrong side of the boat.

On steep waves, the stern may rise up and plunge the bow of the boat into the ocean bottom. Generally, this means the boat will (generally) deflect to one side or the other since a sandy bottom has only slightly more give than granite. This too can be countered, but I have only succeeded in that once - the rest ended up with rolls. If the wave is really steep, the bow may stick into the bottom and pitch-pole the boat. I’ve seen someone actually recover from that, too, but I can’t claim that degree of competence.

If you look at the videos at this link, you can see some pretty decent demonstrations of the tendency of a sea kayak to broach:

As the stern rises, and the bow sinks, the bow and stern may encounter different currents, and this can cause issues as well. This is more common in rock gardens where water must flow back through and around the rocks to return to sea. Generally, this is handled with a low brace, but in strong currents, a broach my happen PDQ. On rivers, this can happen when your boat is long enough to encounter eddys at both bow and stern. Good practice, but more than a bit disconcerting :).

In any case, a rudder isn’t particularly useful in any situation where surfing may occur, so it is best to do what you can to keep it safe from being deployed. If you are paddling with someone, they can help ensure the rudder is stowed properly before you enter the surf.


Rudder in the Surf
Thanks Rick, is that you in the video?

Actually no…
Cameras and I just don’t get along. Must be a factor of being the youngest - the world seems to have run out of flim/memory by the time I come along :).