Inflatable kayaks: Do you Need a Skeg (Tracking Fin)?

See also this about rudders
And read this about decks

grabgumskeg

Short answer: Yes.

It’s easier to go straight while paddling as hard as you like, and most except the very cheapest single-skin vinyl IKs come with one; some flat-floored models have up to three (imo, a gimmick) and many skegs are unnecessarily tall (deep). Just about all skegs can be easily removed by hand, because in shallow rivers you might want to do so to avoid grounding.
If you’re IK doesn’t have one, it’s easy to glue a skeg kit (see below).

fitskeg
Gumotex skeg fitted to a Grabner Amigo.
Horrible, old bolt-on alloy Gumotex skegs. A faff.

A few years ago Gumotex introduced a slip-on, black plastic tracking fin (skeg, above) which was near identical in shape to one I’d had made in the oversized, alloy skeg days (left). A smaller skeg made better clearance and still worked fine, but metal does bend. Plastic is so much better.
I’ve fitted these plastic skegs to older Gumotex IKs and other IKs. The kit is about £25 + glue, and the plastic skeg is tough. Just make sure you glue the mounting patch on really well; it helps if your boat is made from a matching rubber fabric as the supplied Nitrilon patch. or make your own patch from same fabric. The pictures below help you see where to position a skeg.

I fitted the Gumotex plastic skeg to my Grabner Amigo IK (above) and at sea used it all the time. But on the shallow River Spey (below) this boat didn’t handle at all well without a skeg, possibly because the the tailwind pushed the high stern around. It was really quite annoying because a few years earlier my broadly similar Sunny managed the Spey fine without a skeg, so skeg-free tracking clearly varies from boat to boat.

spey1304

If you’re an experienced paddler you’ll have acquired the knack of going straight without a skeg – handy for paddling shallow rivers where the skeg would ground. A little more paddling finesse and constant small corrections are required, especially if powering on.
It’s good to learn the technique before you need to: fix your eyes on a tree or marker on a distant bank and paddle as gently as you like towards it, not looking away and keeping the nose of the boat in line with the marker. By using very light strokes you’ll see it can be done if it’s not too windy when again, a skeg helps with tracking (going straight).

IK&P Tip: drill a small hole in your plastic skeg and attach a ring or zip tie, or find some other means of attaching it directly to you boat during storage, not chucked in the bottom of a bag. It’s annoying to turn up and find you misplaced your skeg.

razorskeg
Generic slot-in and peg skeg found on most Chinese PVC IKs. A bit on the tall side but easily chopped down.

I even found I could paddle a ten-foot Solar 300 (below) without a skeg. Once you know you can go straight without a skeg, it’s just a matter of adopting the same finesse but with a bit more power. Only when you attempt the speeds of a Maori war party will the bow deflection or yawing get too much because to paddle faster and still go straight you need a skeg. Out at sea or on busier rivers, I always use a skeg.

cezesolar

I’ve often thought a hinged retractable skeg would be a good idea: it would pivot backwards when dragging in shallows, then drop back down when there’s enough depth. It seems SUPs need skegs and in the US, FrogFish have made such a thing for boards, but you hear the spring can be a weak point.
If your kayak has a rudder mount (or you can make one), another way of doing it is fitting a swing-down skeg similar to kayak rudders. It works the same way as a rudder with a looped cord swinging the skeg up over the stern, or down into the water. The pivot skeg shown top right is made by Advanced Elements for their AirFusion IK and costs about $/£80. Or have a look here.

Packrafts

On shorter, wider, slower packrafts the consensus used to be that skegs made little difference. Especially when unloaded and with a full-weight paddler, the bow yaws merrily left to right as your paddling pivots the boat from the back. Or so I used to think until I tried the skeg on my Rebel 2K. Up to then I’d been ambivalent about them – using the same boat fully loaded a few weeks earlier on a fast flowing river, yawing had not been an issue. But unloaded (and with my generous 95kg of ballast) yawing was notably reduced with a skeg. Speed however, was not any greater, or was too small to measure.

One reason some packrafts may manage without a skeg is that way back in 2011 Alpacka invented the ingenious extended stern (right). It helped limit yawing much like a skeg, and effectively positioned the paddler more towards the centre of the boat, like a kayak, while also adding buoyancy. This idea has been widely copied by just about everyone since and it definitely works, compared to the earlier, original Alpackas like the blue boat, right. But as mentioned, once there’s a good load over the bow, yawing is reduced in any packraft.
Anfibio sell a detachable skeg and glue-on patch for €21.

Tracking – going straight – is not the same thing and not really a problem on a packraft because you can’t go that fast, skeg or no skeg. You move along with a moderate left-right bow shuffle which it’s true, does limit your speed, but speed is limited by a packraft’s hull shape anyway.

9 thoughts on “Inflatable kayaks: Do you Need a Skeg (Tracking Fin)?

  1. Tsvetomir Slavov

    Hi Chris,
    I`ve got Gumotex Solar 410 but my previous kayak was Itiwit 3 seater.I have sold it because drying it was a massive issue for me. But this kayak was with 3 skegs- 2 at the back and one more towards the centre of the kayak.Why do you think Itiwit used so many skegs and what will be the effect of putting 2 or 3 skegs on Solar?
    Regards
    Tsvetomir

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    1. Chris S

      Hi Tsvetomir, did the Decathlon boat have a very flat floor? They often need help to track well.
      The parallel tubes of a 410 floor act like a skeg and so the normal back fin is all you need. And on a shallow river you can even get away without that with a bit of practice.

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  2. Mauro Aguiar

    Hi guys, I am using a safari Gumotex in Brazil and I am quite satisfied. I wonder if one flexible skeg, in semi-rigid rubber, for example, it wouldn’t be a great idea for rivers with alternate shallow and deep waters…

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    1. Chris S

      Hı Mauro. I thought of that ıdea but never actually trıed ıt. Somethıng lıke a cut down 4×4 tyre mudflap mıght work.
      Dont know ıf the lack of total rıgıdıty would make any ımprovement mushy but worth a go. Send a photo ıf you get round to ıt.

      Ch

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  3. Alex Daly

    Can you tell me how far down the bottom of the IK you would place your skeg? I have a gumotex palava, and a skeg to fit, but little clue on location. Thanks and love the site, loads of great info.

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    1. Chris S

      Hi Alex, as I’m sure you know, a Palava is designed with benches to be paddled canoe style (one bladed paddle). You can of course sit down in it and paddle kayak style with a kayak paddle. Might well be faster that way.
      If you are paddling it solo with a canoe paddle, sitting on the left bench facing right in the image below, I wonder if the skeg would work so well as its under your weight. Further back from the centre of weight is best. Two up would be better, but put the leading edge of the skeg on the red line, more to less.
      I must say in the canoes I’ve rented over the years, I instinctively got the ‘J’ correction at the end of a stroke. I found this much easier to learn than going straight any hard shell kayak I ever tried. However, I imagine a light and lightly loaded Palava is more prone to wind and may need some help going straight. One idea in such conditions is putting some weight right at the bow.

      Chris

      palava skeg

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