I recently launched a 4.6-metre long recreational/touring sit-on-top (the Marimba) with my new kayak company, Vagabond Kayaks. The response from the market has been overwhelmingly positive, as expected, but I also received requests that reminded me of a peculiar aspect of South African paddling: most paddlers think that a rudder is needed to steer a kayak.

Before I delve into the details, let me make a few things clear: no kayak under 3m long needs a rudder. Never. Ever. Period. Between 3m and 4m, maybe, but most unlikely. Between 4m and 5m, maybe, maybe not. Between 5m and 6m, possibly, but maybe not. Over 6m, yes, you need a rudder.

If and when you need a rudder is determined first by the actual design of the kayak, second by the conditions that you will use it in, and lastly by your skill level.

When do you need a rudder?

In principle, the purpose of a rudder is to steer a kayak that is otherwise difficult to steer; in other words, to turn a kayak that is designed to go straight. The reality is that most kayaks can be steered without a rudder with relative ease. I will get to steering techniques further down, but let me first explain when you really need a rudder:

  • Sprinting: when you sprint, you cannot afford to waste energy to steer your kayak, apart from wiggling your toes to steer the rudder.
  • Riding slip on flat water for long distances with a long kayak: it is difficult to stay in the perfect spot toride slip without a rudder.
  • Riding swells or surfing ocean waves with a surfski or any other long kayak: you need that rudder to steer the kayak and keep it in the sweet spot.
  • Rough conditions on open water: when you cross a big dam or lake, or cover distance on the ocean, and the weather turns foul, a rudder helps to keep direction while you battle the elements.

You may notice that I did not include rapids in this list. The reason is simply that you don’t need a rudder most of the time in most rapids with most kayaks. If you absolutely cannot turn your river-racing K1 in rapids, there is a good chance that you’re paddling a K1 with a hull designed for flatwater racing, not for river racing.

By this time, you may wonder if you shouldn’t just put a rudder on a kayak in case you need it?

There are a few reasons why it is better not to add a rudder:

  • A rudder adds weight.
  • A rudder adds cost.
  • A rudder is something that can (and often will) give trouble when you least expect it.
  • A rudder prevents you from expanding your repertoire of paddling skills.

The normal aluminium over-stern rudders commonly used on racing K1s in South Africa are relatively cheap and light, but they are also very prone to damage. It is far more difficult to steer a kayak with a broken rudder through a rapid than to steer a kayak without a rudder.

Should I use a skeg?

For the sake of completeness, a few words on the rudder’s cousin that is not common in SA but that is widely used over-the-seas: the skeg. The purpose of a skeg is to keep a kayak that has been designed to turn easily,to stay in a straight line. Skegs can generally lift up to slide over rocks or sandbanks, just like rudders; but they can’t pivot and they are not controlled by pedals to help you change direction. Most kayaks with skegs installed have a mechanism for raising or lowering the skeg, so that you can choose whether or not you want to engage the skeg.

Skegs are typically deployed when hitting long sections of flat water; where you just want to keep paddling in a straight line without having to constantly steer the kayak. When manoeuvring is required, the skeg is lifted to allow the paddler to steer the boat easier by paddle strokes. Skegs tend be used most often on kayaks in the 3m to 5m range.

Learn to steer your kayak without a rudder

All right, let’s move on to steering techniques. There are different ways to control the direction you want to go by using a combination of paddle strokes and body control. The preferred technique will depend on the type of boat you’re paddling and where you’re paddling.

Back stroke

I put back stroke here just so that I can tell you not to use it. For most beginner paddlers, a back stroke is the default stroke that they adopt to change direction. But, a back stroke breaks all of your momentum, and it messes with the fluidity of your paddling motion. Unless the purpose of the back stroke is literally to stop forward motion in addition to turning the kayak, don’t do it.

Sweep stroke

The sweep stroke is the easiest stroke to learn and it works on just about any kayak. It can be done when your kayak is standing still or when you’re paddling forward.

To initiate the stroke, put the paddle blade into the water in front of your toes. Pull it in a wide arc around your body. Your boat will turn to the opposite side as you pull the arc. Keep pulling until the kayak has turned enough, then take your paddle out of the water before you turn too far.

To maximise the radius of the arc that you’re pulling, your paddle should be a lot flatter (more horizontal) than when you do a normal forward stroke.

The key with the sweep stroke is to incorporate it into your normal forward-paddling rhythm. In other words, if you paddle forward and need to turn right, you stay in rhythm and just change your left forward stroke into a left sweep stroke. This way you efficiently turn the boat without breaking your momentum. If you haven’t turned the boat enough with the first left sweep stroke, do a normal forward stroke on the right side to keep your rhythm going, then do a second sweep stroke on the left.

Practice this stroke to anticipate the degree of turn of your kayak when you do a sweep, so that you turn it just enough and not too much, otherwise you will need to follow up with a sweep on the other side again.

Bow rudder

The bow rudder is more tricky to learn, but it is a very efficient stroke that is especially useful in rapids. The bow rudder puts you in an unstable position if you do it wrong, making it a difficult skill to acquire in a narrow racing kayak. This stroke is best practiced in a more stable boat. A great way to learn this stroke is to start playing canoe polo as it will be one of the first strokes you learn. Once you have mastered the bow rudder, it can be used very effectively in a racing kayak too.

The bow rudder only works when you are moving forward (to do the same thing when standing still, use a bow draw). The advantage of a bow rudder over a sweep stroke is that it is very precise, putting the bow of your kayak exactly where you want it, and it lends itself to combo strokes.

In essence, the bow rudder is a vertical paddle stroke where your paddle blade is planted as far forward as possible, some distance away from the side of the kayak but not too far, and with the blade twisted enough for the power face to face the incoming water. To keep your balance when doing a bow rudder, you need to lean into the stroke. Don’t just sit flat, or worse, lean away from the stroke; there is a good chance that you’ll end up in the water.

If you paddle forward and want to turn right, plant your right blade in the water. The incoming water will act on the blade and pull the bow of the kayak to the right. Keep your arms fairly straight and use your core muscles to hold the position while your kayak turns.

When the kayak has turned as far you as you want it to go, simply twist the paddle blade in the water and continue with a forward stroke. This combo stroke is extremely useful for dynamic moves in rapids.

Edging your kayak

This is a very useful technique to steer most long, fast kayaks. By edging your kayak, the hull profile in relation to the movement of water is changed, causing the kayak to turn. This method is not as effective in wide kayaks (over 70cm wide) as they are too buoyant to keep on edge, and it is also not very effective in narrow kayaks with a completely round hull. But on most longer, narrower kayaks it is the most useful technique for steering your kayak without having to change your forward paddling motion.

To edge your kayak, use your hips. Don’t lean to the side, simply tilt the kayak. If you paddle forward and want your kayak to turn to the right, tilt the kayak to the left. In other words, drop the left edge and raise the right edge. Or put differently, lift your right bum. Keep this position while you keep paddling forward. Your kayak will take a slow turn to the right. Once it has turned enough, simply use your hips to level the kayak again.

It is important that your kayak moves at a descent speed, otherwise edging won’t have much of an effect on the direction of the boat. Also, if you move at a descent speed, very little edging is actually needed to turn the boat.

Don’t be conned into thinking that you always need a rudder. Learn and practice these techniques, and only add a rudder when really needed.By gaining command of different paddle strokes you will evolve from someone who just propels a kayak forward to a well-rounded paddler.You can thank me when you pass someone flailing around in a rapid with a broken rudder. 

Important pointer for any turning stroke: Look where you want to go, not where you are currently going.

This article written by Celliers Kruger was originally published in the April/May 2019 issue of The Paddle Mag. This digital publication is free to view and download. Try the ISSUU app on your mobile phone too.

View the original images of paddle strokes in the magazine.