Six Ways of Steering Your Sailing-Kayak
Six, really? Yep… and perhaps with a better understanding of quantum physics we’ll even find a few more, but for now six is all I can come up with.
While an entire book can be written on the topic of steering a sailing-kayak, I’ll do my best to keep this as short as I can and at the same time try not to leave anything out.
First, you should know that in order to have a nicely steering kayak one should begin with having a balanced boat. I’m referring to fore-and-aft balance, and if you would like to learn more about this topic here is a blog post on the subject.
Steering a sailing kayak is nearly identical to steering a non-sailing kayak. The only difference is well… the sailing aspect. And because sailors are always thinking about the wind, they think of steering in this way as well. A non-sailing kayaker might say “let’s turn into that bay” While a kayak-sailor might say “Let’s reach upwind and then bear-off into that bay.” The motion of the craft is nearly always considered in relation to the wind, either upwind or downwind. So keeping this in mind, let’s get down to the nitty gritty:
There are six basic ways to steer your kayak: (1) paddle steering, (2) rudder steering, (3) hull steering, (4) leeboard steering, (5) skeg steering, and (6) sail steering.
These can be classified into four categories: Steering that moves the boat by redirecting water around blades. Steering that changes the “footprint” that the boat makes in the water. Steering that moves the location of the boat’s center of lateral resistance. And, steering that moves the center of effort in the sails.
Sounds a bit complicated, but it isn’t. It’s easy!
Let’s begin with steering that moves the boat by redirecting water around blades. (1) Paddle steering and (2) rudder steering both fall into this category. Paddle steering a sailing kayak is probably the most common method of steering and is accomplished using two basic strokes, the forward sweeping stroke and the stern rudder stroke. For upwind sailing rigs like the Kayaksailor with leeboards near the bow, the bow rudder stroke is less effective, so I won’t go into it here.
To perform the forward sweeping stroke, simply reach forward, insert the paddle blade alongside the hull, sweep it out and back in a wide arc. This will have the effect of pushing the bow in the opposite direction of the sweep. So, in order to move the boat to the left, make your sweep on the right side of the boat; and to move it to the right, sweep on the left. Even though sweeping strokes are very effective, you may need to use multiple strokes to get the job done.
Here I am initiating for a forward sweeping stroke on the right side of the boat in order to move the bow to the left.
To perform a stern rudder stroke, simply insert your paddle blade in the water alongside the stern and angle it so that water is being directed away from the stern. In contrast to the forward sweep, you will want to put the blade in the water on the same side as the turn, meaning that if you want to turn left, put the blade in the water on the left side of the stern. Generally, only one rudder stroke is needed to alter the boat’s direction. And for the stroke to be effective, the boat needs to be already moving forward.
In this early Kayaksailor photo, Patti is not only adjusting the brim of her hat, but she is also using a stern rudder stroke to steer her boat downwind. Notice that the paddle blade in the water is behind her and on the downwind or “lee” side of the boat.
An important difference between the two strokes is that a forward sweeping stroke will generate forward boat speed, while a stern rudder stroke will create drag and slow the boat down. For this reason paddle-sailors often use sweeping strokes while sailing to windward when forward efficiency is most important, and rudder strokes while sailing off-the-wind when boat speed comes more easily. A rudder stroke can also be quite effective for very tight turns, as well as for slowing the boat down to avoid collisions. It’s also a useful method for initiating a jibe.
Next is rudder steering. Rudder steering is probably the easiest method of steering so I won’t spend too much time on it here. Basically if your boat has a rudder installed, pushing on the right foot pedal will turn the rudder and make the boat will go to the right, and pushing on the left pedal will make the boat will go the left. Simple. Like the stern rudder stroke, forward motion is necessary to make the boat turn. And, also like the stern rudder stroke, pushing it too hard will create excessive drag and slow the boat down. For this reason, employing small rudder movements are preferred for small course corrections. But reducing speed isn’t always a bad thing, especially for collision avoidance, so if you really need to slow down, by pushing the rudder all the way from side to side it will act as a water-brake and will help to slow forward motion.
The next type of steering is one of the most useful methods, yet least understood by the novice paddler. I’m referring to (3) hull steering. Hull steering is remarkably simple. You lean the boat in the opposite direction of the turn. Want to go left? Lean the boat to the right. Want to go right? Lean the boat to the left. Easy. Like using a rudder or performing a rudder stroke, the boat needs to be moving in order for the boat to turn.
Most sailboat sailors know that when a sailboat is heeled over excessively it wants to turn away from the heel and round up into the wind. Hull steering is one of the main reasons for this.
Some boats hull steer better than others, and to explain why, it’s important to understand how hull steering works. It works by changing the shape of the boat’s footprint in the water. Since most kayaks, and sailboats for that matter, have narrow bows, wider middles, and narrow sterns, they create a footprint in the water that looks something like this:
(Please excuse the crude diagram.)
A boat will make this symmetrical shape as long as it is sitting flat in the water. And when the water moves around this footprint, it will move symmetrically around the curves on each side, allowing the boat to travel in a straight line.
What happens when you lean the boat to the right, is that the footprint in the water will change to look something more or less like this:
Now the footprint takes on an asymmetrical shape with the right side maintaining the hull’s curved shape, while the inside changes to more of a straight line. An asymmetrically curved shape like this wants to move through the water in the direction dictated by the hull’s curve. In this case to the left.
Here I am demonstrating a sharp left turn by significantly leaning my kayak to the right.
Below is what the footprint looks like when the boat is leaned to the left:
Of course now the left leaning boat will make a footprint curve that curves to the right and so the boat will want to steer to the right.
Here Patti executes a subtle right turn by gently leaning her kayak to the left.
A tip for aggressively hull steering in gusty wind conditions is to always lean the boat (and your body) away from the sail. This puts your body weight in a better position to counter balance the sudden heeling force in the sail.
It should now make sense that the very best hull steering boats have very curved hulls. I like to think of these as “feminine” boats, boats with “hips.” Some of the worst hull steerers are the masculine ones with long, nearly straight sides. Though this type of hull can be quite fast, it can also be very difficult to turn.
Let’s move on to methods of steering that change the boat’s center of lateral resistance. (4) Skeg steering and (5) leeboard steering fall into this category. First let’s look at skeg steering.
A retractable skeg is a non-turning fin normally located under the stern. It is typically found on sit-inside touring kayaks, but can also be found on some recreational kayaks. There are two types of skegs, fixed and adjustable. The adjustable skeg retracts up inside the hull, and since these are the most useful for steering we will concentrate on this type.
The photos below shows a skeg both retracted and deployed.
But before we delve into how to skeg steer, it’s helpful to understand the concept of a boat’s center of lateral resistance.
The following is a simple way to visualize it; Imagine yourself standing in knee deep water, and with one hand, you push your kayak sideways through the water. Suppose that the boat is moving perfectly sideways, with the bow and stern traveling exactly the same distance; That exact place where your hand touches the boat is just above the boat’s center of lateral resistance. If instead you were to have put your hand closer to the bow and pushed, the bow would have moved farther than the stern, and therefore your hand would have been forward of the boat’s center of lateral resistance.
Now, instead of you pushing sideways on the boat, imagine the wind is pushing sideways on the boat and you are sitting in the cockpit. If you were to drop a skeg down into the water under the stern, what would happen is that since the skeg has its own lateral resistance, the boat’s overall resistance would be shifted back toward the stern and the bow would be pushed downwind.
So, basically, the way to skeg steer is to drop the skeg down when you want to turn the boat downwind, and to raise it up when you want to steer upwind.
Most retractable skegs have a sliding control knob along side the cockpit, allowing for precise control of how much skeg extends down into the water.
On a balanced kayak, it usually takes only a small skeg adjustment down to make the boat turn downwind. It should be noted here that if you have both a skeg and a rudder, as we do on our composite boats, having the skeg too far down will reduce the efficiency of the rudder because it keeps the stern from moving sideways.
Next is leeboard steering. This too changes a boat’s center of lateral resistance, except in this case instead of the adding resistance to the stern with a skeg, you are now adding it forward on the bow. By dropping the leeboards down, the bow will be prevented from sliding downwind.
So if you want to turn downwind, raise the leeboards up a little, and if you want to turn upwind, lower them down.
Balancing your leeboards to the sail is very important for upwind kayak-sailing, so if you haven’t read the post “Balancing the Leeboards” yet, please take a moment to read it.
The sailor above has his leeboards mostly down and is in the process of slowly turning upwind.
For sailing downwind, you can even raise the boards up and out of the water completely and still maintain directional balance, as our friend Dan demonstrates.
Finally, the last type of steering, (6) sail steering, is steering that moves a sail’s center of effort. This steering method is used on boats with fore and aft sails, and, in the case of the Kayaksailor is only used when the rig has the genoa added. By trimming each sail independently, the overall sideways pulling force in the sails can be moved either in front of or behind the leeboards. Unbalancing the rig in this way will turn the boat either downwind or upwind.
So, for instance, if you are on a beam reach with the wind coming from the side and your sails both have wind in them, by loosening the mainsheet and spilling all the power from the main, the genoa will now have all the power, and because the genoa is located forward of the leeboards, it will pull the bow downwind.
In general, if your intention is to turn downwind, try easing the mainsheet. Conversely, if you want to turn upwind, loosen the genoa sheet and spill all the power from in front of the leeboards. Now the mainsail’s power will be aft of leeboards, causing the stern to slide downwind, allowing the bow to head up into the wind.
Sail steering only works when the wind is coming over the side of the kayak and works on some points of sail better than others. It is very effective on a beam reach, mostly effective on a close reach, not so effective on a broad reach, and doesn’t work at all on a dead run.
Patti is seen here sailing her self built skin-on-frame Greenland kayak, effortlessly steering without skeg or rudder.
So now that you know the six different ways of steering — paddle, rudder, hull, leeboard, skeg, and sail — you have six useful tools at your disposal to make your boat turn.
While any one of these can make a boat change direction, an experienced kayak-sailor will often use combinations of these tools to efficiently steer their craft. What combinations work best for you and your boat is up to you to find out.
Fair winds and happy sailing!
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There has been a crazy rudder debate going on among certain kayakers for decades. In case you are not aware of it, I’ll fill you in on the issues.
On one side there are the kayaking purists that say “A well designed kayak should be easily steered by hull steering and paddle strokes, and that kayak makers add rudders to their boats simply to compensate for design flaws.” Basically, “A real kayak doesn’t need a rudder.” Many of these purists do however acknowledge the benefits of using a retractable skeg (a non-turning fin located near the stern) in certain conditions to improve tracking, especially on rockered kayaks, in quartering seas and on off-the-wind legs. But essentially, they say “no” to rudders.
On the other side of the debate are rudder lovers who say “ Additional steering? Sure! I’m in! Where do I get one”.
So… why all the fuss about rudders? Human nature, I guess. It seems that if we don’t have anything to debate about we can’t prove how dominant we are and life becomes boring. I’m pretty sure it’s just a “guy” thing.
But there must be more to it than that, you say. Well… sure. Let’s dig deeper into the topic and carefully look at both the disadvantages and the advantages of rudders.
First the disadvantages:
Rudders are mechanical things that can fail. True. They also require periodic inspection to make sure all the parts, especially the cables, are in good working condition. They are expensive. No argument there. They can be a pain to install. That’s for sure. I once spent the better part of a day fitting out a kayak with pedal controls and a rudder. They add drag that can slow you down. True. The fact is that anything you hang off your boat is going to create at least some drag. Plus, if the rudder is compensating for an unbalanced or poorly designed boat, or, if the helmsman is heavy footed with the pedals, the amount of drag will be increased. It’s also true that rudders are often found on unruly boats, and that beginners tend to push the pedals too much. Additionally, some rudder control pedals need so much leg motion that they prevent the paddler from feeling “locked in” to the thigh braces, resulting in less hull control. And lastly, rudders often have a way of looking out of place on a traditional kayaks. True enough.
Hmm… Have I left anything out? Probably… but let’s move on.
Now for the advantages of rudders:
They provide additional steering by using your feet! You have to admit, it’s a pretty cool idea. By steering with your feet at least one hand can be removed from the paddle and put to other uses like handling a fishing rod, taking photos, eating lunch, tending the sails, holding a VHF, etc. It’s a simple mechanical device that has proven over the years to be amazingly reliable. While they do add drag, it should also be noted that rudders can effectively reduce or even eliminate “yaw” (the side to side motion of the bow with each paddle stroke) thereby increasing the forward efficiency of each stroke. And on long kayaks, especially in quartering seas, a rudder will help the boat stay on course without applying extra, energy robbing, corrective strokes. On most big tandem kayaks, a rudder is almost a necessity. It can often be difficult to coordinate the necessary strokes needed to turn the craft (They don’t call em’ divorce doubles for nothing!). Also, when used on short “squirrely” (erratically moving) kayaks, or on heavily rockered (banana shaped) kayaks, a rudder can dramatically improve the tracking. And when used on extremely long, fast kayaks having little rocker, a rudder can transform an extremely difficult boat to turn into one that will… well…at least give you some hint of steering. As for the rudder pedals, it’s true that many pedal mechanisms allow one’s leg to slip out of the thigh braces, but it should be noted that there are very good mechanisms out there (like the Smarttrack System) that allow a fixed pedal position so one can retain that “locked in” feeling of control.
Regarding rudders and kayak-sailing, I like using them. Others, like Patti, prefer to use them only intermittently when they need to have their hands free, or not at all.
Are they necessary? Well… no and yes. They are only necessary if you feel they are necessary. Some boats sail beautifully without a rudder. Typically these are well-designed, well-behaved paddling boats to begin with. Others can definitely benefit from a rudder. Each boat has its own “personality”.
Most people would agree that a rudder makes learning to kayak-sail much easier. By keeping the boat on course with one’s feet, it’s easier to concentrate on sail handling.
With the Kayaksailor rig, the leeboards can be balanced to the center of effort in the sail, maintaining the directional stability of the boat, and on well-designed hulls, rudders normally aren’t necessary. That said, I sail a nicely designed boat, and still like using a rudder for a variety of reasons, mainly for fishing and photography, but also for just kicking back and enjoying the ride. I also like to use it for swell riding to keep the bow heading down the line of the wave.
In my mind, the decision of whether or not to use a rudder really boils down to the “fun” factor. If it’s more fun to use a rudder, use one. If it’s more fun without it, don’t use one. Because when you really get right down to it, it’s all about having fun on the water.
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And Happy Sailing!
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The next post will be on the six ways of steering a sailing kayak. Stay tuned…
Kayak-sailing 102 Load Balance And Directional Stability.
Prerequisite for this class is Balancing the Leeboards.
Most people are aware that placing weight in the very bottom of a boat acts as ballast and stabilizes a craft, and that adding a weight high above the waterline will make the boat less stable, but it is not so widely understood how the distribution of weight fore and aft affects the boat’s directional stability.
What I mean by directional stability is how controlled a boat will track through the water. A directionally stable craft will hold a steady course with little input from the helmsman. A directionally unstable one will change directions on its own, often without warning and can be difficult to steer.
Probably the most important feature of a well-balanced kayak is a properly designed hull. The overall length of craft, as well as how much rocker the hull has (hull curvature from bow to stern) both play very important roles in regards to directional stability, but so does cargo placement, specifically, how and where this weight is distributed throughout the hull.
Typically in a small craft such as a kayak, the paddler makes up most of the cargo weight. And in well designed kayaks, the seating position should allow the boat to sit relatively level in the water, allowing it to track through the water in a controlled manner. So it’s important to know that having a seat too far forward or too far aft will alter the way the boat handles.
An unbalanced kayak with too much weight forward will have a bow that rides too deeply in the water and a stern that rides too high. In a bow-heavy boat, the bow will effectively act as a keel, biting deeply into the water, thereby reducing the sideways sliding motion of the bow. At the same time, the stern will loose it’s keel-like effect and slide sideways through the water too easily. Patti and I call this action “bow-keeling”.
While a limited amount of bow keeling can be beneficial in a sailing kayak by allowing the bow to track to windward more efficiently, too much weight forward can make the kayak want to “weather-cock” or turn into the wind on its own, requiring near constant corrective strokes to stay on course. Anyone who has been in one of these boats knows that they can be frustratingly difficult to steer. Once a directional change is initiated either by paddle stroke or hull steering, the stern will want to slide out toward the outside of the turn, requiring a quick corrective stroke to bring it back in line. Then, typically, the corrective stroke will cause the stern to slide back in the opposite direction, past the desired position, and require another corrective stroke. You see where this is going.
On the other side of the scale, an unbalanced kayak with too much weight in the stern will have its own control issues. In this case the bow will ride high above the water, allowing it to slide sideways, and the stern will sit too deep, acting like the keel. Though a stern-heavy kayak can be difficult to steer, it is usually easier to deal with. The two main control problems with boats having overly heavy sterns are, a difficulty in making tight turns due to the stern tracking too well, and a situation where the boat is constantly wanting to turn downwind because the bow is sliding away too easily.
So… how does one correct an unbalanced kayak?
Shifting cargo either fore or aft is an easy way to do it. Also if the kayak has an adjustable seat, sliding the seat either fore or aft can be a quick fix.
The next thing to try is adding weight to a compartment in the boat. Since it’s generally desirable to keep a boat as light as possible, the position of weight, as well as the type of weight used should be considered.
By positioning the weight as close to the bow or stern as possible, one can minimize the amount of weight needed.
As for what kind of weight to use, a good option is to add safety gear such as: dry clothing (in a dry bag), a first aid kit, a water bottle, food, a kayak repair kit, etc. Being prepared for emergencies is always smart. And while basic safety gear should always be onboard, another option is to add water weight. Water is desirable not only because it is dense and requires very little space, but perhaps more importantly it remains neutrally buoyant when submerged. Added benefits include being able to rinse the salt off at the end of the day, and even drink it if need be.
Patti and I sometimes correct for a bow-heavy boat by adding a small solar shower (basically a water bag with a plastic shower head attached to it) to the aft compartment, and placing it as far back in the hull as possible.
Below is a list of three common symptoms of an unbalanced kayak and how to fix them.
1) The kayak is tracking poorly and difficult to steer, especially when going off the wind (downwind). It may be bow-heavy. Try lightening the bow by shifting gear aft, shifting the seat aft, and/or adding weight to the stern compartment.
2) The kayak is constantly wanting to turn up into the wind. Again, it may be bow-heavy. Try lightening the bow by shifting gear aft, shifting the seat aft, and/or adding weight to the stern compartment.
3) The kayak is constantly wanting to turn downwind. It may be stern-heavy. Try lightening the stern by shifting gear forward, shifting the seat forward, and/or adding weight to the bow.
4) The kayak turns sluggishly, tracks like an arrow while traveling directly downwind, and may also be difficult to turn into the wind. Again, it may be stern-heavy. Try lightening the stern by shifting gear forward, shifting the seat forward, and/or adding weight to the bow.
Finally, it should be noted that some boats are just not well designed and will have poor handling characteristics no matter how you balance them. Even though balancing is always desirable, and will likely improve the overall handling, let’s face it, adding all the cream and sugar in the world into a bad cup of instant coffee will not miraculously change it into a fresh cup of gourmet java.
That said, if you have one of these instant coffee kayaks you can always add a rudder to improve the handling. Rudders can often compensate for severely unbalanced boats and greatly improve their directional control, but they too can have their issues. More about rudders in the next post.
I hope this information proves useful.
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