Rudders Demystified E-mail
Sunday, 14 March 2010 00:00

rudder

To rudder or not to rudder, that is a question that’s discussed a lot. Rudders are one of the items on a kayak that elicit a lot of questions. Many expert paddlers will tell you that a rudder is unnecessary. There are lots of things we use in our daily lives that we don’t have to have. These items are luxuries we don’t wish to do without. Do you want to give up air conditioning?  You don’t need it but it’s sure nice to have. That’s how many of us who have rudders on our kayaks feel. We don’t want to do without them. When it comes down to it all we need to kayak fish are a kayak, paddle and a fishing rod, yet we have rod holders, fish finders, GPS, radios, anchor systems, bait tanks, etc. So it doesn’t really matter if you truly need a rudder, it’s more a matter of what will a rudder do for you and are those attributes important enough for you to have one on your kayak. Let’s look at rudders more closely so you can get a better idea if it’s an accessory you should consider. What I hear most often is if you know how to paddle you don’t need a rudder. My response is paddling and kayak fishing is very different. For starters kayak fishermen do something no one else does from a kayak; they fish. Kayak fishermen don’t get into the Zen of paddling with leans and special strokes. The kayak is a means of getting to the fish. Also most kayak fishermen have never been in a kayak before so the skill level, especially in the beginning, isn’t very advanced.  Even as your skill level improves and you become an accomplished paddler you’re still fishing from a kayak and there are things a rudder will do which will allow you to more effectively fish some places. This will result in catching more fish and that’s the reason most of us fish.

There are several ways a rudder is beneficial to the kayak fishermen. There is a phenomenon in kayaking called wind cocking. This occurs on open waters when paddling in the wind. Rarely is the wind going to be directly behind or in front of you. It will hit you on an angle from the side. Let’s say you’re heading towards 12 o’clock and the wind is coming at you from 2 o’clock. If it’s a significant wind it’s going to push the kayak to the port (left). To keep the kayak heading towards 12 you’ll have to paddle more on the downwind (port) side of the kayak as the wind is pushing the kayak that way. The greater the wind the more you’ll have to compensate. You may end up taking 5 or more strokes on the port side for every stroke on the starboard (right) side. Humans are a bi-pedal animal and just as walking works better when you take an equal number of steps with each leg, so too does paddling. To periodically make an extra stroke on one side of the kayak or another is OK, to do so regularly is awkward. It is much more efficient to paddle normally and steer the kayak with the rudder in such situations. That’s what a rudder does for you in the wind. On my first trip to Cape Cod we ran into a situation where we had to paddle back against a quartering wind. It was at least 15-20 mph. The group consisted of Joey, Doug, Jim and I. Doug and I had Tarpon 160s with rudders; Joey was in a Scupper Pro TW (no rudder) and Jim in a Cobra Fish in Dive (also rudderless). Doug and I had by far the easiest time getting back to our starting point. Joey recognized the advantage the rudder gave Doug and me. He’s never owned a rudderless kayak since. Jim’s Fish in Dive didn’t have a rudder option but Jim’s next kayak had a rudder too.

Rudders steer the kayak. They are akin to manual versus power steering in a vehicle. Anyone who has ever parallel parked a vehicle without power steering and then used it doesn’t want to do without. That’s one aspect of a rudder. In tight places it makes things much easier. The use of a rudder will significantly shorten the turn radius of the kayak. In some environments this really doesn’t mean very much. Out on the open ocean having the ability to maneuver isn’t going to be very useful to warrant the expense and weight of a rudder. It’s the reason rudders are rare in places where most of the fishing is in the open. However when things get tight a rudder makes a kayak a better tool for accessing fish. In many environments it’s important where you position the kayak in order to make a cast to places that hold fish.  In the Northeast we have a myriad of places that get tight. Rivers, ponds, estuaries, rocky areas, working around jetties, boat moorings, to name some of them. When you head south much of the same structure exists and then there’s the backcountry, which benefits greatly from a rudder.

Fishing is a hands on sport. Since fishing requires you to use your hands, positioning the kayak requires you to stop fishing to use the paddle. To do so occasionally is OK but to do so regularly isn’t. If you have a rudder then you’ll greatly reduce the times when you’ll need to use the paddle. Translation – you get to continue fishing.  It’s important whenever you’re fishing near structure that you have the ability to fine tune your position. It’s rare that you’ll remain motionless while on the water. Even if there isn’t any air movement the water will most likely be moving. You’re not going to remain static. The movement of the kayak while fishing will either be towards or away from where you want to be. Your feet control a rudder so it allows you to adjust your position without involving your hands. So the kayak will move over the water and you can position where you are and steer to where you’ll be heading. As you drift along you adjust the angle of the rudder and it changes the direction you go. This is especially nice when you’re fishing some type of structure and you want to stay a certain distance away. Fly-fishing along structure is probably the best example of such a situation. Nothing is as precise as fly-fishing for delivering an offering an exact distance. You strip off the amount of line you want to cast and you will cast that exact amount every time. It’s perfect for casting to shorelines, mangroves, drop-offs, and sedge edges, just to name some, where accurate fly placement makes a big difference between snagging and catching fish. As the distance from the place where you want to place the fly changes you adjust your drift to parallel the structure without the need to constantly grab the paddle and use it. The amount of line is finite and by adjusting your drift you can stay the same distance from the structure as you drift. The result is you’ll be able to place your fly in the right place more times which should equate to more fish. On a trip with Everglades Kayak Fishing this past fall our entire group really missed our rudders. The difference was astounding in positioning and maneuvering amongst the mangroves. We spent a lot of time positioning our kayaks compared to what we were use to. A rudder is invaluable in maneuvering when things are tight. This is another way in which kayak fishermen benefit from rudders.

A rudder is great at controlling your drift. While fishing rivers the hands-off aspect is very welcome. Moving with the current as you flow down the river you can easily control where you drift. If an interesting place to put a cast appears ahead of you it’s a simple matter of steering the kayak to the best vantage point to cast from to place your offering in the prime spot to elicit a strike.

In some places the rudder will mean the difference as to whether or not you’ll land a fish. Again it’s a matter of controlling where you’re going. On big open waters it’s irrelevant where a fish drags you. When it gets tight it matters. A couple springs ago I was fishing the Nauset Marshes of Cape Cod. I was heading up current trolling along a sedge bank. The water dropped off the edge to approximately 15 feet. The channel was about 30 feet wide and bordered by a flat of around 200 feet in width. The tide was going out and was moving at a good clip. (The average tide at Cape Cod is 9 feet, so a lot of water moves through the area.)  I hooked a nice striper and the fish immediately used the strong current as it headed downstream. There was a bend in the channel filled with lobster pots that had marker buoys attached to them. What usually happens with a good fish is the fish tows the kayak. That was the case here and when combined with the current it was an inevitability that the fish would end up in the buoys and I’d have a tangled mess. I’d probably loose the fish too. However since I had a rudder I turned it so the fish was forced to drag the kayak sideways. The additional drag wasn’t to the fishes liking and as usually happens the fish reacted by going away from the added drag. The choice was either the sedge bank or the flat. Fish are aquatic creatures and don’t climb sedge banks so the choice was the flat. As the fish headed out across the flat I went along for a ride. When the water was only a couple feet deep I threw my anchor into the water and fought the fish while standing. The result was a nice bass. Recently I got a phone call from a gent who was considering getting back into kayak fishing. He had tried the sport several years ago in a small Sit Inside Kayak. What he hadn’t liked about the sport was he liked to fish for snook in Florida. Whenever he hooked a good fish it would run into the mangroves, pulling him right in there too. There are hazards like snakes, spiders, voracious mosquitoes that make it an undesirable place to be. I told him that’s not a problem if you have a rudder on your kayak. When the fish runs into the brush you simply turn the rudder so it veers away from the vegetation.  Problem solved. He’s now getting back into the sport.

So how do rudders work?  A rudder has a few integral parts. There’s the actual rudder, which steers the kayak. It consists of a blade that extends from the stern of the kayak into the water. It’s on a pin, which goes through either a hole in the rear of the kayak or a bracket that’s attached. This allows the blade to pivot. This pivoting changes the angle of the blade in relation to the kayak and is what steers the kayak. The blade is on a cam that allows it to be raised or lowered into the water. This way when you don’t need or want the blade in the water it doesn’t have to be. Also when you transport the kayak you’re going to want it secure and out of the way to prevent damage. While fishing there are places where you won’t want the blade in the water either. If the water’s shallow and there are lots of rocks around the blade could get damaged or stuck. A pull cord controls the raising and lowering of the blade. It’s a simple mechanism but does the job nicely. As mentioned above rudders are operated with your feet. (The only exception to this is Hobie Kayaks that have the Mirage Drive. Since the drive is a foot propulsion system they can’t both propel the kayak and steer it too. So steering is via a hand lever.)  Cord or cable is used that attaches to the sides of the apparatus that holds the blade. By moving the cord toward the front of the kayak the angle of the blade changes. So if it’s moved on the port side the kayak will turn to the left and vise versa. The most common method used is foot slides. Most systems use a simple sliding mechanism where you push on a pedal and it pulls the rear apparatus forward. Pushing on the opposite side pulls the side just pushed back. These sliding mechanisms consist of a rail that mounts on the kayak wall and an inner part that slides inside the rail. There is a pedal on the inner part that is adjustable for leg length. When fully engaged the slide will move approximately 3 inches. Many kayaks don’t have a lot of legroom to begin with and the slide mechanism shortens the legroom by a few inches. Occupants with longer inseams often find this mechanism doesn’t give them enough room in some kayak models, making it uncomfortable. All rudder control systems work the same but sometimes the approach is slightly different. Another way of accomplishing the same thing is instead of having one part slide within another it pivots from a fixed point. We refer to this type of mechanism as a toe pilot. Your foot doesn’t move back and forth as it does with the sliders, instead your heel stays in the same spot and you push forward with your toe. It’s the way to go if you have a longer inseam.  As mentioned earlier, cord or cable, is used to connect the foot apparatus to the actual rudder. To get either the cord or cable from one to the other you have to either run them inside or outside the kayak. I don’t like running the lines externally as they become a target for snagging. The only situation where I’d go with an external system is if there weren’t anyway to put one inside the kayak. (We’re going to use cord to describe cord or cable for the remainder of the article)   When an internal system is set up the cord runs through tubing that goes from the stern of the kayak to the cockpit. This allows the cord to smoothly operate while also protecting it.

If you don’t have a rudder on your kayak and wish to add one it’s important to know that all kayaks aren’t created equal. If the kayak isn’t rudder able then its usually not possible to add one. Many longer kayaks can accept a rudder but some brands won’t. A kayak needs to be designed to accept a rudder. The reason is that there are specific places where the parts need to be placed. Most important is the attachment of the apparatus on the stern of the kayak. There either needs to be a hole for the rudder in the kayak or a means to mount a bracket. Tubes to house the cord need entrance and exit points. In the rear you need frogeyes. They are little bumps that can be drilled out for the tubing. They position the tubing so that it’s in-line with the rudder and allows for a straight pull. There also needs to be a flat place in the cockpit that’s perpendicular to the length of the kayak for the tubing to exit. Again so the pull is straight.  A place to mount the slides or toe pilots is necessary too. Without some of these features you’re not going to be able to install a rudder in a kayak without some major modifications.

Only you can determine if a rudder makes sense for you. If any of the above scenarios seem to describe the places you fish or some of the experiences you’ve had then give a rudder a shot. If you surveyed kayak fishermen who own rudders what they think, you’ll find the vast majority won’t ever own a kayak without one again. I for one always want a rudder if it’s available, as I’ve found so many situations where they allow me to fish more effectively. Just like air conditioning, TV remotes, power windows, etc. I’m not willing to do without.

 

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