How skegs work, how and when to use them, and how to look after them.
What is a skeg?
It is a small retractable blade or fin that can be moved up and down in the water at the back of a sea kayak. Skeg blades are fixed in the vertical plane - they don’t move from side to side. Skegs also come in different shapes and sizes!
Why do most sea kayaks nowadays have skegs?
Because a skeg helps the paddler go in the direction they want to, when the wind (and also sometimes the water) seems to be making the boat have ideas of its own.
What do we mean “boats have ideas of their own”?
Many sea kayaks when paddled across the wind (ie wind from the side) will tend to turn into (towards) the wind so the paddler has to work harder on one side (the windward side) to stop it happening.
Why do they do this?
A simplified explanation is that the wind (blowing from the side) blows on both the bow and stern of the boat but it has more of an effect on the stern than on the bow. So it pushes the stern of the boat with (away from) the wind (in the direction the wind is blowing) and the boat pivots around some unseen point near the middle with the result that the bow turns into (towards) the wind.
Forward momentum also tends to ‘anchor’ the leading end (bow or front) of the boat in the water whilst the following end (stern or tail) is less anchored and can therefore be more readily blown by the wind.
How does the skeg help?
Putting it down in the water helps to stop or reduce the stern getting blown sideways and therefore reduce or stop the consequent pivoting effect which makes the bow go towards the wind. So effectively it helps the paddler go straight in a side wind.
A boat turning into the wind as it is paddled along is described as ‘wind-cocking’ or ‘weather-cocking’. If, when paddled along, it turns downwind or away from the wind it is described as ‘lee-cocking’. Many modern sea kayaks are designed to wind-cock very slightly even when laden, rather than be completely neutral (not turn either one way or the other in a cross wind).
How does the skeg mechanism itself actually work?
Over the years kayak manufacturers have designed a variety of mechanisms to make the skeg blade go up and down in their boats. These include shockcord (elastic), wire cables, fibre rods and hydraulics.
Inverness Canoe Club hire boats almost all use stainless steel cables to work their skegs. [There is one exception – the old red plastic Skerray (boat no 11) which has a cord and pulley operated skeg.] With a steel cable system, the cable runs through a plastic pipe below the deck and is connected to the skeg blade at the back of the boat, while at the cockpit end the cable runs through a recess where it has a button attached to it. To put the skeg down (into the water), the paddler pulls the button towards them, and to put the skeg up (back up in its housing) he or she pushes the button away from them. It normally works well, but there is a drawback. Cables get bent and even kinked very easily and then they jam and stick, after which the skeg doesn’t work smoothly - or quite possibly not at all! Bent/kinked cables are difficult or impossible to straighten and the best cure is having a new one fitted. Prevention is better than cure… so… don’t bend it in the first place.
How do cables get bent?
At the blade end. Pushing the skeg blade up from underneath (rather than pulling it up from the front using the button at the cockpit end) is likely to bend the cable at the back. This is almost always done by forgetting to house the skeg before landing and, therefore, going ashore with it down. But you can also do it by paddling in shallow water or rock hopping with the skeg down and catching it on a rock or sand bar.
Pushing the skeg blade itself back into the housing will have the same effect. So if you see an unhoused skeg when the boat is sitting on someone’s car roof, don’t be tempted to push it back in! Do it properly using the button.
Fig.1 - Capella skeg cable kinked at the back
At the cockpit end. Pulling too hard on the button to lower the skeg when the skeg box is gummed up with sand, fine gravel or a small snail shell for example, will be likely to bend the cable at the front.
Fig.2 - Capella skeg cable kinked at the front
[Some more modern boats now have their skeg cables protected from bending at the cockpit end by running them through a hollow steel tube. But the older ICC sea kayaks unfortunately don’t have this feature.]
Capella skeg/cable assemblies cost about £45 each to buy and then someone has to fit them! So it is definitely worth avoiding damaging them!
How can we avoid trouble?
Follow these VERY SIMPLE rules to avoid damaging club sea kayak skeg cables.
(1) Always remember to pull your skeg up before landing, or in shallow water and remind your friends if you see that they’ve forgotten.
(2) If you pull your skeg button to put the skeg down and it doesn’t move easily - don’t just pull harder. Ask a friend or coach/group leader to check it out at the back of the boat to see why it’s sticking. If you’re asked to help a friend out with a jammed skeg simply raft up with them so that you’re at the back of their boat. Get them to hold onto the front of your boat and stabilise it and then lean on their boat and reach under it. Feel for their skeg, or the cord attached to it, and pull it down - but remember - do not push it back up again. Then, before you move off, get them to check that it’s working normally by pulling it up and pushing it down again using the button in the correct way. If this doesn’t work, you may have to go back ashore to investigate it (pausing only to let your group leader know that you need to do this).
(3) Get in the habit of putting either the side, or the ball of your thumb on the cable when pulling the button, to stop it bending outwards if the skeg is sticky and doesn’t move easily.
Fig.3 - Margaret M pulling a Capella skeg button with her forefinger and keeping the side of her thumb on the cable to prevent it from bending outwards.
TRIM AND TRIMMING A BOAT
What does trimming a boat mean?
Effectively it means distributing the weight of your luggage (tent, food, beer and other camping essentials) in such a way as to make the boat handle as well as possible.
Thinking about this in a very simplified way:-
If you put all the weight in the front of your boat and then go out paddling in a side wind, what will happen?
The laden bow is down in the water and doesn’t catch the wind so much, whereas the unladen stern is sitting higher out of the water and catches the wind even more than before. So the stern is blown with the wind more and the boat pivots its bow into the wind more. In other words it is likely to wind-cock more than if you distributed the weight evenly in the boat. Using some or all of the skeg should reduce or prevent this.
If you put all the weight in the back of your boat and then go out paddling in a side wind, what will happen?
The laden stern is down in the water and doesn’t catch the wind so much, whereas the unladen bow is sitting higher out of the water and catches the wind even more than before. So this time the bow is likely to catch the wind more than the stern, and the boat turns with (away from) the wind (lee-cocking). Lee-cocking is more of a problem for the paddler as putting the skeg down is, if anything, likely to make the problem worse. The only real solution in such a scenario is to go ashore and re-pack your boat (ie trim it appropriately).
How much skeg should I use?
It’s not just as simple as fully lowering your skeg all the time! That would be too easy! In different wind conditions different amounts of skeg are needed to keep the boat travelling straight! As a general rule:
- Heading directly into the wind, you shouldn’t need any skeg.
- Heading across and towards the wind with the wind hitting the front quarter of the boat, you’ll need it about ¼ of the way down.
- Heading side on, perpendicular (at right angles) to the wind, you’ll need it about ½ down.
- Heading away from and across the wind with the wind hitting the back quarter of your boat, you’ll need it about ¾ of the way down.
- With the wind directly behind you, you’ll want you’re skeg all the way down.
This is a very rough guide, but as different boats behave differently, you’ll need to get to know how your's handles, and fine tune the amount of skeg you need for the particular circumstances that you find yourself in! And of course how you’ve packed the boat will affect it too.
Don’t forget that our Club sea kayaks are really expedition boats and are designed to be full of stuff - camping gear, climbing gear, food, beer etc, etc. So taking one out in a wind, on a day trip or Wednesday evening, with very little or no extra weight in it, is asking for handling difficulties.
And remember also that the skeg is designed to reduce a boat’s tendency to turn when you don’t want it to. So it will also reduce the boat’s turning ability when you do want it to turn.
Understanding why a boat behaves the way it does in a wind, and knowing how to affect it by distributing the weight carefully when packing it, goes a long way towards having a boat that is enjoyable to paddle. In addition, understanding how the skeg acts on the boat, and knowing when to use it and how far down to put it, should ensure that you paddle a boat that handles well and you don’t have to fight with it in a side wind.
Just remember to look after the skeg and its cable carefully...