Skeg, Rudder, or Smooth hull - Which do you prefer?

It was mentioned in the ‘kayak length to seaworthiness’ thread and got me thinking - Do you prefer naked hull, skeg, or rudder and why? Please mention your paddling intent and typical wind and waters, as I think this affects the calculation a lot.

For me, I enjoy the hell out of a rudder. After paddling and racing canoes for 5 years, I can say I love the hell out of my surfski’s rudder. In a cross or quartering wind in the canoes, it sucked paddling on one side for 10+ minutes at a time. I cant imagine doing a long crossing of an hour or more and being stuck on one side. Canoe paddling was mostly done in small/medium lakes, often with a 5-15mph wind, and occasionally over 20. At the time I thought a rudder was ‘cheating’, but was also very envious of boats with them.

On the surfski, a rudder is mandatory for the boat. No amount of heeling will properly steer a ski. winds of 10-20mph are common and 25+ on occasion. Typical seas range from 1’ on a flat day to 7’+ on big days. I would want nothing to do with the ocean over 2’ without a rudder. Yes, I am competent at heeling a boat (racing canoes only turn when heeled hard over with sweep strokes), but a rudder is sooo much easier and more precise. Particularly when trying to maintain course into or with quartering waves and cross wind. Also it allows point-and-shoot precision when going down wind or chasing waves.

A comment was made about the rudder coming out, which happened on my old ski, a Fenn XT. But this only happened on steep, short interval waves and was in part due to a poor rudder design (the shark fin shape, which is a junk design) and placement which was too close to the stern of the boat. On my Swordfish S, the rudder is far enough forward it never comes out of a wave, and I put a huge DK 9" surf rudder on it. I can hold an aggressive line down a wave an not broach thanks to its huge surface area.

On a typical sea kayak I guess you would not have an under stern option, so coming out of the water may be more of an issue, but I’d still take a rudder over skeg, and a skeg over a smooth hull any day. The more control I have over the direction of the boat without using rudder strokes, the better. I like to move forward efficiently and the rudder is king for that purpose.

Seems like the rudder is looked down upon by purists, but I contend its a great tool with many more benefits than drawbacks in general. Yes, it can break, but if you have an emergency kit (as I always do) in a worst case scenario I can just wedge it straight and turn it into a skeg. I also carry a bungee that will compensate for 1 broken cable.

So what say you? Smooth, Skeg, or Rudder and why?

When possible naked hull is best. Most reliable, as long as there’s not a lot of current or wind least complicated and nothing to break. One Kayak I have that I use mostly for still water came with a rudder that I had to install and I never got around to it, tells you all.

When there’s wind and waves rudder if present. When it’s already there I use them but only deploy in the sea/ocean. You don’t have to worry about dirt and silt getting stuck and you can customize it to keep you on track exactly so then you don’t have to paddle more “weakly” on one side or differently. I can concentrate on perfect rythm and go faster without worrying about direction once the rudder is set to keep the boat from weathercocking.

I sea kayak in New England in mostly level 3 conditions so that’s 1-3 foot waves with potentially 15-20 knot winds. I prefer skegs over rudders to help track straight in tougher conditions over a rudder. First off, I use foam blocks instead of foot pegs so I wouldn’t be able to operate a rudder. I personally have no issues using a skeg for tracking, but as mentioned you do need to keep it free of debris and make sure that it is working correctly prior to trips. For the most part though, I rarely need to use it. Proper edging and technique is a must for sea kayaking.

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Great Lakes paddler, level 2-3 conditions. My personal preference is a skeg in a sea kayak. Doesn’t add as much weight as a rudder; can be fine tuned for trim and keep the boat balanced in a cross wind; doesn’t need feet to operate which lets me use a foam footrest instead of foot pegs; no metal, cables, housing, etc. sticking up and cluttering the visual design lines; simpler to operate and easy to maintain. I wash my boats after each outing and rinse the skeg box well.

A rudder helps the paddler turn the kayak and some folks rely on that. A skeg is useless in turning so the paddler has no choice but to develop edging and stroke skills needed for maneuverability.

Regardless of preference, I think every paddler should spend time practicing boat control in windy conditions without using the rudder or skeg. Both can fail and those skills will be handy.


Fla. paddler here with five wildly different boats for different conditions. I don’t have a skeg on any of them. I don’t like really rigid tracking and having to fight to turn. I have SUPs with skegs and like them because you can walk around and move the center of gravity to emphasize the skeg when needed.

In waves an under the hull rudder is absolutely necessary. Over the stern rudders are for flat water and to me are only necessary on longer boats, sixteen feet or more.

The worst boat I have paddled in choppy stuff is the Epic 18. That screwy rudder they use has nothing that sticks into the water to keep you in place.

Under sixteen boats normally don’t really need a rudder or skeg, you control them with your paddle.

There are a couple of boats out there that will not go to windward without a skeg or rudder. I consider that a design flaw.

I prefer the option that works best for the conditions I am in and the boat I am paddling. In my usage that is generally a skeg.

I have said many many times that if I was racing or doing major expeditioning I would likely prefer a rudder. I don’t do those things.

But my read of this post is that it is largely about the last part, initiating at least a small argument with so-called purists about rudders. Not too interested in that. Been done. Or is that just careless phrasing?

A whimsical discussion. :grin:


My favorite boat in any kind of conditions has no skeg and no rudder and it needs neither. When I first got the boat, I thought it would be a real handful, because it is 19’-2" long. The boat does force you to learn some new strokes and techniques, but once I learned what I had to, I use the same methods on all of my boats.

There is a lot more to making a great handling boat than just a rudder, skeg, both, or best of all–nothing. NC Expedition.

Seems like the skegs get clogged, bent and stuck. The rudders get bent, broke, bent, and missed rigged. The rudders cables rub my leg. The slick hull boats don’t have those problems.

Boy has this topic calmed down from 25 years ago when it was a war out there! Great to see.

Here’s my opinion (y’all can decide if it’s humble or not - but be kind :slight_smile:) - It depends on what works for you.

That’s it - the whole answer. In fact that’s pretty much the answer to any question about paddling. If you go out, come back and are smiling, then whatever works for anyone else doesn’t matter.

But here are some of things to think about…

One class of situations where rudders are a specifically very good are when you want to avoid corrective strokes. The most obvious cases are racing or other situations where you want all of your paddle energy to be focused on going forward. Another case is if you are a nature/stealth photographer and need to glide towards a target with no paddle splashes to spook the subject of the photo. I’m sure you can think of others.

The reputed downside of rudders include mechanical complexity, being a possible obstacle when doing self rescues and catching more wind when not deployed (I’m not convinced of this last is really noticeable to 90% of paddlers).

Skegs are most effective in cases where you need to adjust the “stickiness” of the stern - such as in cross winds or following seas.

In the case where you are paddling forward in cross winds, the bow is held more tightly as it’s pushed into the water, while the stern is “looser” as the water separates from the hull, hence the cross wind pushes the stern downwind faster than the bow and you turn into the wind (or weathercock). This is actually a good thing - the most stable position in bad conditions is pointing into the wind and waves.

In the case of following seas, a stickier stern helps prevent broaching.

One key thing new folks with skegs need to learn is that, unlike a rudder, a skeg is not either all up or all down. It’s deployed just enough to offset whatever conditions you’re paddling in, and can be quickly retracted if you need to free the stern for a quick turn.

Skegs are generally more simple mechanically than rudders. I long for the good old days of external skeg lines, jam cleats and being able to field replace all of components without tools, but the current generations of boats with internal cables and molded in skeg controls are here, so breakage can happen. Skegs can be jammed with gravel, so a bit of care when launching from pebbly beaches is needed (also good to add a small cord to the skeg blade (P&H ships with one) to make it easier for a paddling partner to unjam).

Naked hull -
Might have a touch less drag than a boat with a retracted skeg and a touch less sail area than a boat with a retracted rudder. It’s not clear to me that the difference is enough to effect the vast majority of paddlers.

And here’s where the discussion gets interesting - remember this is just my opinion:

First - paddlers going out on anything other than a calm day in protected waters should have a good set of corrective strokes in their skill set. Ideally, you don’t paddle in conditions where your safe return is dependent on having a working rudder or skeg.

But I would argue that if you are going out in bigger water, you need to recognize that nature is bigger than any person and that surprise is part of the equation. Having a skeg or rudder extends the size of the margin of safety to help offset that surprise. You don’t need to use it, just like you don’t need to use the fire extinguisher in your house most days. But it’s there when you do need it.

Having said all of that, my personal preference is for a skeg. But I’m not a racer and I tend to do what little on water photography I do from my canoes.

FYI: I’m a great admirer of Greenland Inuit paddlers, have used a Greenland paddle as my primary paddle for many years and really love their pragmatic attitude towards paddling. Strap on skegs were not an unusual part of their paddling gear.

Sorry for the long post - someday I’ll have the time to be concise.


I was a skeg over rudder guy. now I have a fleet with 1 rudder, 3 skegs, 2 naked. I have not deployed a rudder or skeg in over a year and wish the skegs were not in place due to lost storage. the older I get it just seems easier to edge, than to monkey with extra stuff.

I rarely paddle naked. I find it too cold. Depends on design of boat. Long no rocker boats need a rudder like an Epic 18x. . Rockered boats don’t. I see no reason NOT to have a skeg. Don’t like the skeg don’t put it down. So no naked ones.

I’ve had all three. Depends on the hull design and conditions you usually paddle in which works best, IMO.

First sea kayak I ever bought had a rudder. Was perfectly fine in most conditions below 3 ft seas and beam winds under 15 mph. Higher beam winds would make it near impossible to turn with the rudder down, and steep waves made the rudder hang in the air when the crest was at the stern.

I’ve also had 2 bare hulls. One of them needed either ballast in the stern (2 liter bottle of water stuffed all the way back), or a skeg for windy conditions. It has a skeg in it now, and paddles beautifully. The other one wasn’t affected by anything that I’d paddle in normally, but was 19 feet long & needed more effort to turn even in flatwater.

My other skeg boat (Valley Anas Acuta) pretty much needs the skeg at least partially down all the time. Otherwise, it goes where it wants to, and weathercocks in just about any wind . But it’s super maneuverable with the skeg up, which is a lot of fun in decent sized chop (2 ft and up) that you’re just out there to play in. So it basically comes down to what works for you, and the hull design but given all the above, I prefer a skeg boat, because it offers the advantages of a skeg, and can also be paddled bare.


For sea kayaks: A skeg is the way to go. It’s there when you want it and retracted when not in use. The paddler controls the kayak via strokes and edging.

For fishing kayaks: Love a rudder as it allows me to control my quiet drift without spooking fish. The rudder is never down while actively transit paddling except maybe in a following sea. The paddler controls the kayak via strokes and edging.

For racing kayaks/surf skis: a rudder is the winning choice. Strokes are mainly for propulsion and edging is non-existent compared to a sea kayak.


PRobably the best turning device is the wife: won’t go out in anything except flatwater and I am rather scared to go anywhere by myself say “in the wilderness” without a “buddy”. I don’t mind rough seas because I like the journey and above all the destination. She does.

This is why we do bare hull and mostly flatwater like lake/river even though we live on the sea!

CA139 - Your cross to bear.

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They all have there place.
Small boats shouldn’t need either.
On my own boats I much prefer a skeg for the simplicity and solid foot bracing…
When guiding I LOVED rudders as it was much easier for novices to maneuver boats like a tandem through the mangrove tunnels.

It’s not a bad thing. Simplicity is tough to beat as any mechanical device can and will fail. And if anyone else gets their hands on the boat and that someone didn’t pay for it, wife, kids, friends, whomever, no matter how many times you tell them to retract rudder/skeg when getting close to land they never seem to. This seems to be the universal cross across all activities involving gear that cost more than nominal sums!


Need? We should not use the word ‘need’. Can the rudder or skeg provide a bit of efficiency for the conditions and hull shape? If so, and if you want that efficiency, then why not?

I made another side-mounted external skeg that makes an interesting option. It’s a skeg, so no moving foot braces like a rudder. It’s external, so it’s easy to keep moving freely or fix if it does jam up. A piece of bungee (not visible) deploys it, and single external line to a clam cleat retracts it by stretching the bungee cord. It attaches with two big thumb screws so it’s easy to remove. And it doesn’t take up space in the rear storage compartment so I have room to stash any interesting lobster buoys I find for the “collection” - except for the monster buoy in the photo that wouldn’t fit anyway. :slight_smile: