Mats Bengtsson kayaking and kayak techniques

Beginners guide when and how to use the kayak skeg

Mats Bengtsson mib over the years

Why use the kayak skeg

Rectractable kayak skeg in bottom of a kayakAs with so many other things around kayaks (and many other things), there are different views on skegs and rudders and the benefits of having or not having them. However, if we assume by some reason that you have a kayak with a skeg, then all discussions regarding if the skeg is a good or bad thing to buy is replaced with the question on when and how to benefit from using it.

Understanding how to use the skeg is easy, but this is a case where you need some knowledge, since what you see (the bow) is not what you should be focusing on when adjusting the skeg, instead you should be focusing on what the stern is doing. As soon as you have changed the focus to the stern, adjusting the skeg becomes simple.

  • Main reason to use a skeg is to use less work to keep on the course you want the kayak to be on. (That is, the skeg affects how much the kayak turns in wind and waves). Especially when paddling with the wind and waves coming partly from the side, it means the skeg can be used to be able to keep the course with little work.
  • Second reason, and for the beginner maybe an important reason as well: The kayak skeg can be used to make the kayak calmer and easier to handle.

In both cases above, there are other ways to achieve some of what can be achieved with the skeg. But the main objective with using the skeg instead of those other means is to achieve it in the most comfortable way possible (less work, less instability, less insecurity). Also, to have alternative ways of achieving it if you become tired or by some reason do not want to totally rely on the other means.

It takes wind and speed to make the skeg useful

If there is no wind and no waves, there is nothing that is pushing the kayak sideways, so without wind or waves, the kayak tracks well and the skeg does very little. How little wind is needed to deem the skeg as a positive addition to paddling depends on the kayak and the kayakaer. If the kayak model itself is affected very little by the wind, then it takes more wind to make the skeg useful. Also, although the skeg has some effect without forward speed on the kayak, the skeg is not really useful until you have some forward speed.

In general, as long as you are in light breeze, you are not likely to have a need for the skeg, the effects of the wind can easily be countered by edging and paddling with for example sweeps now and then. However, already in moderate breeze (above 5 meters per second) you are likely to be paddling in conditions which although they still can be countered without the skeg, will take more of your efforts to counter, than it will if you use the skeg.

  • The need for the skeg has to do with the kayak model. Different kayak models are affected differently by wind and waves.
  • But that is not all, the need also has to do with more than only the kayak model. for example, ow the load of the kayak is divided is also a factor. If the kayak stern is affected a lot by the wind compared to the bow, then rearranging the load of the kayak so it becomes heavier in the stern will make the stern more equal to the bow.

Thus, even though some kayak models need less skeg than others, also those kayak models will have varying degrees of needs for skegs depending on circumstances, so saying there is no need for the skeg for a certain model is simplifying the picture a bit too much.

Other ways than the skeg to compensate for the moving stern

As said before, the skeg is one of many ways to solve the course stability. There is many ways, like:

  • The kayaker migh edge the kayak (lean the kayak in such a way that balance remains inside the kayak). When edging, the shape of the kayak (decided once again by the model of the kayak) determines how much the edging affects how much more stable the stern becomes compared to the bow. The more effect edging has, and the more you are capable to edge the kayak without being uncomfortable, the less the need for the skeg.
  • The kayaker might compensate with some difference in paddling strokes. For example now and then making sweep strokes on one side of the kayak.

How to decide when to use the skeg

Absolutley easiest way is to paddle where you want to go. If why doing that, you find that you frequently need to adjust the course, and adjusting it in the same direction, for example by using the paddle to do sweeps. Then you are wasting energy on adjusting the course. The waste is independent of what method you use to alter the course, although the amount of waste depends on how you do it. If you want to paddle more comfortably, then use the skeg to the point when these course alterations are more or less not needed, or so infrequent that they are not taking noticable energy from you.

It is the same thing if you do the course alterations, or the course stabilisation, using edging. If you find that it is getting either tiredsome, or that the edging adds uncomfortability in any other way. Then use the skeg insted.

How to find the right position of the kayak skeg

A retractable skef with the wire controlling its positionJust focus on the previous main points, and tuning the skeg becomes very easy. You are paddling forward, the wind is coming from the side (let us in the example say from the left), and you are the whole time having to adjust the kayak because it is turning more to the left than you want. What should you do? Easy. If you are moving forward, then it is the stern that is skidding, not the bow. If you are turning left, then it is not the bow turning left, it is the stern skidding. In this example, it is skidding to the right, which means it is skidding in the same direction as the wind is blowing it. Thus the stern is currently not as stable sideways as the bow. Give it more skeg. That is it!

  • Please observe the "more skeg". Skeg is not on or off, skeg is all the way from nothing to everyting, with the possibility for all positions in between. It is controlled by a slider, not a switch, and can be anywhere between all the way up and all the way down..

After the above described change of the skeg, if you now find that the bow is turning a little to the right, what has then happened? Well, now the stern is not skidding right as much in the water as the bow. This is because the skeg you gave was so powerful that independent of the bow being stabilised by your speed forward, the stern now is more sidestable than the bow. Thus remove a little of the skeg. And you are done again!

That were the two cases you need to understand to tune the skeg. If the kayak is turning due to wind when having forward speed, it is due to the stern moving sideways compared to the bow. If the stern is moving more in the direction the wind is blowing than the bow, then from your place in the kayak it will look as if the kayak is turning towards the wind. But you should instead focus on the stern. The turn is in reality caused by your stern skidding on the water, in the same direction as the wind, and more than the bow is skidding. Thus, you need to give it more skeg, to prevent it from skidding so much.

If you have full skeg and it is still not enough, then you need to accept the problem until you can find a place to rest. When resting, move something with weight from bow to stern, to make the stern skid less in the water.

Additional usage of the kayak skeg

As said in the beginning, the skeg can be used for more than controlling the direction. Thus

  • If you are out on the water, and the kayak stern is crisscrossing forth and back with the waves, give it more skeg to make it move slower (feeling more stable).
  • If the kayak is rolling more with the waves than you want, give it more skeg to make it roll forth and back a little slower (feeling more stable).
  • If you are going downwind, and the stern is either crisscorssing, or the kayak is having a tendency to become turned parallell to the waves, give it more skeg (making the stern slower as soon as the kayak is surfing in such a way that the stern starts to turn from being straight in line with your paddling direction (your relative speed to the wave)..



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