Updated summer 2014
Many newcomers to Gumotex IKs find the optional black plastic slip-on skeg (right) to be essential for good tracking and assume their inability to go straight is a consequence of bloated IK design. After all, most normal hardshell kayaks and all canoes manage fine without a skeg.
In fact, my few early paddles in rental hardshell kayaks were no more straight than in IKs (which was one reason I never got into kayaks), but I now know it’s all down to getting the knack of straight tracking without a skeg - and it can be acquired in an IK, just as it can in a hardshell. Of course some boats – usually long thin ones – track fine with no skeg or rudder. I tried a Feathercraft Big Kahuna the other day and had no problem going perfectly straight; turning was more of an issue.
I only discovered that I’d gained the knack one time on a shallow French river when my home-made low-profile skeg (right) was dragging and grinding on the shallows. Next day I set off with no skeg and to my surprise and relief found the Sunny (loaded for camping) tracked pretty well. A little finesse and occasional correction was required, especially if powering on; for that a skeg is definitely better.
Paddling in a current didn’t have much to do with going off line (a back wind may do). Most times coming out of stronger rapids I’d spin out as the current at the back of the boat was faster than the front; I could fight it or I could just spin out and enjoy a brief view of what’s behind. Now I don’t bother with a skeg if the river is shallow or quiet. Portaging, parking (berthing?), sliding or dragging over weirs (left), a skegless boat is so much easier, and it’s a little more manoeuvrable (turnable) in the water.
I assumed that the length of my Sunny made this skegless tracking easier, but in 2009 on the Ceze, south France, I tried the g-friend’s short Mk1 Solar (right) and found that it too was effortless to paddle straight with no skeg. With less experience, she was having more difficulty, but it proves that even an amateur/untrained paddler like me can get the knack of going straight in a Gumotex IK with no skeg.
I discovered I had the knack after a year with my Sunny, but a good technique while learning is 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 will see it can be done, even if my very first go in a short and tippy Safari was absolutely hopeless, no matter what I tried. My advice: give yourself a few weeks with a skeg first otherwise the frustration will do you in. Then, once you know you can so straight slowly without a skeg, it’s just a matter of adopting the same finesse under normal power. Only when you attempt the speeds of a Maori war party in attack mode will the deflection get too much because you can paddle faster and harder with a skeg.
I found the other day on an upper Thames training run I wish I’d remembered the skeg in the short Solar 1 as I just wanted to move fast and not bother about correcting finesse. When you’re in a mood for speed, skeg-free correcting can get distracting and so wastes energy. Close to shore is OK, but far out at sea or on busier big (deep) rivers where you’re more vulnerable, I think I’d still choose to use a skeg, just to know I can power on if need be
There’ll be times in the shallows or when dragging over grass when you may want to temporarily remove a skeg, which can just about be done without deflating with Gumo black plastic slip-on skegs. I’ve since fitted a Gumotex plastic skeg to my 2013 Grabner Amigo IK (left).
On a packraft the consensus seems to be skegs make little difference and I can believe it. The bow still bobs a little left to right as you paddle, less so with a load mounted on the bow. Tracking – actually going straight – really is not a problem on a packraft because you can’t go that fast. 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. Or is it?
If anything a packraft skeg fitted under the bow rather than the stern might limit this yawing, but I imagine you’ll loose much of the instant turning ability. Good for crossing a long lake in a hurry maybe. Can’t say I’ve seen this idea mentioned, though I am sure someone’s considered it. Since 2011 we have the more pointy stern Alpackas where the extended stern has the same effect as a skeg. It definitely works.