What is a Skeg for a Kayak & Why is It Important?
Skegs are not something you see on a kayak unless it’s out of the water. But these often-overlooked and unseen components of kayaks serve an essential function: stabilization. Not all kayaks have skegs equipped. That’s because although skegs have an important purpose, they are not always necessary.
A majority of recreational kayakers will not require a kayak with a skeg if paddling in still water or mild conditions. But in more challenging conditions where there’s ample wind and choppy water, a skeg becomes a must-have to provide stability and to prevent drifting. Let’s dive a little deeper into this topic so you can better contextualize whether or not you’ll need a skeg for your kayak.
What is a Skeg on a Kayak, Explained in Depth
Skegs are usually retractable blades, or “fins” that extend from the hull of a kayak — usually at the stern, or rear of the boat.
It may be helpful to draw a parallel with fish anatomy here. If you’ve ever looked at a fish up close, you’ll have likely noticed that they usually have a fin on the bottom rear side of their underbelly. You can think of a skeg as similar in function and placement to this fin, which technically, is called an anal fin.
Skegs function similarly in that their main purpose is to keep a kayak tracking straight while moving forward while also avoiding “body roll”, or side-to-side swaying. That having been said, unlike fish fins, skegs are often retractable. Once extended, they don’t pivot or move — they remain fixed in place like the keel of a sailboat.
Unlike the keel of a sailboat, however, they do not have a ballast (are not weighted) Therefore, while skegs do help prevent lateral movement of a kayak, they don’t act as a counterweight to prevent capsizing.
What is the Difference Between a Rudder and a Skeg?
While you may not have heard of a skeg before, you’ve most likely heard of a rudder.
Most people think of a rudder as a device that’s used primarily to steer a boat. While rudders are more popular than skegs since they do pivot from side to side to aid in steering a boat, the primary function of a rudder is still to offer stability similar to a skeg. In the words of Bruce Holland in his informative piece “The Rudder Versus Skeg Debate, Is One System Better?”,
“Novices to the sport often think that a rudder is primarily used to steer the boat. While this is true, and it is an advantage a rudder has over a skeg, its primary function is to keep the kayak on a straight path.”
How do rudders work? They extend from the hull of a boat, like a skeg, usually at the stern (rear) of the boat. But they usually are hinged rather than retractable, composed of two parts: the actual fin that extends into the water, and the part that attaches to the top side of vessel.
It may be helpful to think of a rudder like an upside-down “L”, with the bottom part of the “L” shape attached to the top rear of the boat and the fin extending downward into the water.
When not in use, the fin part (at least, on kayaks) can normally be hinged upward and away from the water, which can be helpful when navigating shallows. When in use, rudders are turned left and right via the use of foot paddles inside the kayak.
Do I Need a Kayak Rudder or Skeg?
Ultimately, you should weigh the pros and cons of both rudders and skegs to decide if using either one is a good choice for your needs. Remember, in light weather conditions and still water, neither is likely to be necessary. If, however, you’re starting to move from leisure kayaking into more challenging water, looking into these options could prove beneficial.