Inflatable kayaks – do you need a skeg?

Updated summer 2013


Many newcomers to Gumotex IKs find the formerly huge alloy- and now smaller optional plastic 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 canoes manage fine without a skeg.

In fact my few early paddles in rental hardshells 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 even 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 cezesolarportback 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.

cezesolarI 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. 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.

Low-profile skeg
This is rather out of date now (2013) but early on I recognised that the original Gumoskeg on the Mk1 (left, black) was a bit on the big side. For my first long trip down the Dordogne in 2006 I made an albeit flimsy smaller home-made version (above, green; fitted back-to-front would not help!).

I got a batch of longer, 2mm thick skegs (right) made and these are what I used, usually in the sea. I sold a few over the years but the current ‘quick fit’ black plastic post-2009 Gumotex skeg (top of the page) is much like my lowpros.


There’ll be times in the shallows or when dragging over grass when you may want to temporarily remove a skeg, but both old and new Gumo style can only be fitted or removed with the floor deflated. At least with the black plastic skeg there is no fiddly hardware and the fin can be pulled out with only slight floor deflation. 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 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.

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’ve the more pointy Alpacka models where the extended stern can be considered to have the same effect as a skeg.

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