Stern Rudders and STDs [50]

By David Winkworth

Ponder for a moment some of the Great Unanswered Questions of sea kayaking:

  • Why does your nose continue to dribble eight hours after your last roll?
  • Why do paddlers fit elaborate electric pump systems and just use them to pump out the slops on the beach?
  • Why do kayak sailors hoist their sails as soon as the wind speed hits 2 knots?
  • Two paddlers of equal skill and fitness and paddling similar boats: One pulls away from the other… Why?

Hmmm. That last question… I reckon the answer might be smoothness, efficiency and economy of effort. In just about any human endurance sport you can think of… marathon kayaking, long distance ski races, running marathons… you name it, smoothness, efficiency and economy of effort are key components. I think it’s the same with recreational sea kayaking too. The paddler who moves their boat most efficiently over the course of a day’s paddle will arrive at the night’s campsite in better shape than the paddler who races here and there, zigs left, zags right and so on. Perhaps you’ve noticed this for yourself on some of your outings.

I’m not talking about racing for sea kayakers here. What we are trying to do quite obviously, is move ourselves, our kayak and our gear safely and efficiently on the ocean for long periods in a wide range of conditions. This is, quite simply, the essence of sea kayaking for many of us. It goes without saying that we try to enjoy ourselves along the way!

In this article, I’d like to look specifically at Stern Rudder Strokes and STDs… or ‘Slow Thou Down Strokes’ (well, what did you think it meant?) as part of the answer to the question I posed above. Another member (Dirk?) might like to continue the theme with a look at Forward Paddling Strokes in a future issue.

Anyway, what is a Stern Rudder Stroke? (hereafter occasionally abbreviated to SRS).

An SRS could be described as the use of a paddle blade as a temporary rudder!

When do you use an SRS? Well, it’s mostly used to control direction in downwind paddling situations but the stroke is also used in surfing, mucking around in gauntlets and steering to come alongside other kayaks etc. If you have a rudder on your boat, you would probably use the SRS less than your mates paddling without a rudder. That means more practice for you because practice is the key to efficient use of any stroke! You also have to be able to control your boat if your rudder fails… mechanical devices and all that, which we’ve covered before.

Stern ruddering is an easy stroke to do. It can be used to hold a course or make a turn. Let’s have a look at a basic SRS and then I’ll cover some variations: Get up some boat speed, maintain your normal paddle grip position, twist your torso to the side as you would at the completion of a forward paddling stroke, paddle held parallel to the side of the boat and dip the rear blade as a ‘rudder’. Your rear arm should be straight or almost straight. For practice only, turn your head around and look at the turbulence around your blade—you should be aiming for minimum turbulence. Now, still with some boat speed, try alternately pushing the working blade away from the boat and then pulling it in to the side of the boat. Notice that the kayak changes direction? Do it again now, but this time instead of pushing/pulling the blade, try rotating the shaft in your hand—about 30 degrees each way— so that the top edge of the blade tilts away from or towards your kayak. Notice that the boat changes course with this little twist too?

You’ll notice a load on your rear arm in doing SR strokes. The faster you’re going and the tighter the turn you want to make, the greater the load. Be careful not to overdo it!

Grip locators on your paddle shaft will give you more ‘purchase’ for the rotation of the blade. I’ve been experimenting with 4 of them wrapped on with duct tape (one front and back on each side) and it’s given me much greater grip control. It’s a cheap way to get an oval shaft that the Americans pay big dollars for and it’s also useful for blade orientation when rolling at night.

Some variations now: Unlike a car which follows the front wheels around in a turn, a kayak in effect ‘skids’ around a corner, the stern of the boat stepping out. It follows then that the further back you can get your stern rudder in, the greater the effect. You’ll see paddlers in the surf doing stern rudder strokes with obvious rearward leans. It works too but takes you out of your paddling rhythm (which I’ll cover in a moment) and also exerts greater force on your arm so please be careful. You can slide your grip along the shaft to move the blade even further back if you like but this also mucks up any rhythm you have. Also, the further back your SRS in the surf, the longer it takes for you to get in position for a quick up-wave brace to avoid a capsize. This happens a lot and it’s fun to watch!

A tilt turn assists the Stern Rudder Stroke

Another variation is to tilt your kayak away from the direction of the turn as you perform a stern rudder stroke. I’ve covered lean steering in a previous issue which may help if you need revision. This combination of SRS/boat lean needs practice. It is particularly effective, especially in surf and good following seas but can invite capsize if you’re not careful because the SRS is usually done on (for example) the port side while you tilt the kayak to starboard! Use off-centre foot pressure and lift with your inside knee to aid the turn. Be ready to get the blade back up to where you can brace effectively if needed because your kayak may come around quickly.

Forward and aft weight transfer in assisting turns is something I feel not enough paddlers do. It is all too easy to just sit there and paddle but it’s an integral part of turning a kayak. Get your torso forward to lighten the stern for a turn or get it back to aid tracking, but most importantly get out on the bay and practise it with stern rudder strokes. Steering a kayak, with or without a rudder, can be very subtle and slight weight transfer can have a big effect. Learn about your kayak’s handling.

How much SRS do you need? Well, that’s another thing you’ll have to work out for yourself. You may find that you only need a touch here and there – perhaps a half blade only in the water. Why jam the whole blade in when a half will do? You may also find that 2 quick half-blade SRSs are better than one big dunk. With practice, you’ll also find that anticipation becomes a key to smooth efficient SR strokes—you’ll just KNOW when your boat is going to try to veer off course and you’ll be ready with your armoury of course-keeping measures.

Rotate torso, vary blade angle and amount of blade dipped to suit conditions

One really nice thing that I like about stern rudder strokes is that that they fit nicely into my paddling rhythm. I can do an SRS on the starboard side at the end of a forward stroke on that side, or stroke port, then SRS starboard (thereby skipping the forward stroke on that side). There is very little disruption to forward paddling rhythm.

At the beginning of this article I mentioned smoothness, efficiency and economy of effort. RULE ONE in the quest for Smoothness, Efficiency and Economy of Effort is KEEP THE BOAT MOVING! Once you’ve got your boat up to your cruising speed, use your course correction measures (SRS, tilt turns, weight transfer, rudder movement, etc) and your forward paddling technique to keep it up and on course. If you lose your speed you will have to work harder to get it back. If you’re in good following seas you may be zipping along at twice your flat water cruising speed so you may wish to ease back a bit on the forward strokes (economy of effort) while concentrating on course holding techniques. In good rebound conditions you may have to concentrate closely on both forward speed and course holding. Your kayak will be bounced this way and that and you have to correct for that while trying to surf down every sloping patch of water you come across.

A low Support Stroke used to correct course is an STD!

Now despite your concentration and best intentions on course keeping, you’re going to get knocked off course occasionally. Check your compass… if the course deviation is of the order of 10 to 20 degrees I probably wouldn’t bother with too much in the way of an SRS. Remember: KEEP THE BOAT MOVING. Some boat lean and offside foot pressure will bring you back on course. If you have 50 km to paddle for the day, the odd meander is not going to add much to the distance! If you’re wandering all over the ocean however, then clearly you need to look at your course keeping techniques. You may even benefit from the addition of a rudder or skeg.

Now we come to STDs, the arch enemy of Smoothness, Efficiency and Economy of Effort. Even Forward Paddling Strokes can become STDs!
But stern rudder strokes are among the worst! Too many SRS detract from forward propulsion. If you’re doing too many SRS then you may need to look at your technique, transfer some gear from hatch to hatch etc. Look at your paddling mates to see how they’re handling the conditions—you’ll soon work out how you’re going. Efficient paddling feels good! Stern Rudder Strokes in downwind conditions that become Low Support Strokes with an outward roll of the wrist are classic STDs—I know because I’ve done heaps of them! Sometimes they are necessary, but do be aware of the drop in boat speed.

Now rudders! Yes, rudder movement can be an STD and even a neutral (non-offset) rudder in the water can be an STD!

Too much rudder offset – a classic STD

Next time you’re on the water, paddle close behind a friend in a ruddered boat. Ask him/her to actuate their rudder to the limit of travel (often around 40 degrees) and observe the turbulence created around the blade. That is an STD! Some paddlers I’ve watched routinely swing their rudders from lock to lock. If the rudder travel was limited to 15 degrees or less, the paddler would be working against much less resistance and the turn would still be made! Once again, anticipation and subtle use are the key to keeping speed up.

I was out paddling with Gordon Carswell the other day. Now Gordon uses a rudder on his TLC Stingray but he’s a thinking paddler and when he deploys his rudder he does a quick assessment of the benefit because a neutral (non-offset) rudder in the water creates drag and is thus an STD! If the course-keeping effect of the rudder allows Gordon to concentrate on forward paddling to catch more small wave rides, he leaves it in the water. If not, he lifts it out again… makes sense!

Practice is the key to smooth and efficient course keeping—but please practise it in conditions you can handle. Actually, light conditions can be more demanding because it’s harder to pick up rides. Try it down and across waves too—you’ll need to concentrate on weight transfer for these conditions. Take your compass, set yourself a course to the other side of the bay and see how far off course you deviate. See how close you can paddle beside a friend without bumping into each other. Avoid those STDs and good luck!