Rudders are the subject of almost religious debate among paddlers. Purists say going rudder-free makes you a better paddler, and besides, a well-designed boat ("Like mine," they'll tell you) shouldn't need a rudder. Pro-rudder paddlers dismiss the purists as a bunch of Inuit-wannabes who are being silly to pass up such an obvious convenience.
Weird as it seems, the chief benefit of a rudder is less to actually steer the boat than to help it go straight. In crosswinds, big, high-profile kayaks require more strength or technique to hold on course. A rudder makes it easy for paddlers at any skill level to stay on track. At Atlantic Kayak Tours, none of our guides' boats have rudders but about 25% of our fleet boats for clients do. Even so, we begin our trips with rudders in their "up" position. If the wind kicks up and clients are having control issues, we drop the rudders.
Some boats come with a retractable skeg: a little fin like the ones you see on the back of surfboards. The paddler can raise it or lower it from the cockpit. A skeg makes it easier to control the boat in high winds or strong currents. That can be a real plus if you are willing to add some weight (about 3 lbs.) and some cost (about $200) and sacrifice some stowage space (which can be a lot of stowage space in a smaller-sized boat). As with rudders, boats that come with skegs are signalling you that they will probably need these devices in some conditions. So if the boat that fits your specs is offered with a skeg, it's an option you should probably take. Keep in mind, though, that skegs and rudders require maintenance and sometimes repair. Rudder fittings are exposed and can be damaged by unplanned encounters with other boats or obstacles that you failed to notice. Like the beach. Likewise, the cables that raise and lower skegs can get kinked and jam. There's a great deal to be said for kayaks that have no moving parts.
Atlantic Kayak Tours, Expert Center
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