Tuesday, January 26, 2010


I am in love with the bow rudder but I don't know her name! There, I said it. To me it's the sexiest most efficient and effortless move in a kayak. More than that, the way the boat spins under you when motions align just right feels almost magical. The turning momentum seems to perpetuate itself. It's like the boat starts to give back what put into it.

For a decent free skill description and illustrations of the stroke with moving images see this Atlantic Kayak Tours web page. Search also for "Bow Rudder" among these videos by Doug Cooper if you'd like to see a short movie of the skill in action. If you don't have them already Doug Cooper and Gordon Brown's books are great resources for updating your kayaking skills. They both also contain good consistent descriptions of the Bow Rudder. Gordon has a DVD companion to the book out as well.

Gordon Demonstrates cross-bow rudder

Then, there's another detailed and well-illustrated description of the skill by the same name by Derrick Mayoleth. You may not even notice much difference between the two versions but, in my opinion, what separates them is so critical that two different names should be used to label them. Derrick's is the way the bow rudder looked when I met her but she is definitely not the one I fell in love with. Yet, it is the skill as illustrated by Derrick that seems to fit the name. That stroke actually attempts to pull the bow in the direction of the blade. Applying the same name to the turning maneuver presented by Atlantic Tours, Brown and Cooper (ABC) seems to me like a long stretch. More than surface semantics, both of the words in the name obscure the little ABC gem from the sights or well-meaning students of the sport. What's your name, darling?

Derrik demonstrating lean-forward bow rudder

ABC version of the 'so-called' bow rudder is neither done at the bow nor is it really a ruddering stroke. ABC way, the active blade is planted perpendicular to the surface of the water at the paddler's knees, next to the gunwale. The placement is much closer to the kayak's longitudinal center of gravity than its bow. Furthermore, there is really no reason to move it in that direction in principle. If anything, I am curious it if wouldn't work even better applied a foot aft. The live blade placement is distinctly different in the forward-reaching skill as illustrated in Derrick's post. Here the paddler needs to lean distinctly forward and advance the rudder toward the bow. The body rotation in the two versions is in the opposite directions. For ABC you "face the work" on inside of the turn with maximum torso rotation. In the alternative, you are rotated with the opposite shoulder facing the bow as the outboard hand extends as far forward as possible.

The term 'rudder' in the name implies that the paddler should be trying to concentrate the action on the end of the boat. After all, 'rudder' is a steering contraption always found at the (rear) end of the boat. Substituting 'bow' for 'stern' does nothing to the implicit suggestion that the stroke should be performed as far away from the center of the boat as possible. The first term in the name—'bow'—does the same thing: it tells you to reach for the bow with the paddle.

Atlantic Kayak Tours version of bow rudder

The role of the active blade in the ABC incarnation is not intended to move or anchor the bow. Here the paddle in the water serves the role of a pivot point around which the kayak swings–bow moving in one direction stern in the opposite. In that sense, although it is clearly meant for turning the boat, the move feels more like a draw-on-the-move or a side-slip than a rudder. Cooper gives an apt analogy when he writes that bow rudder should feel like a runner grabbing on to a stationary post with one hand and spinning around. The forward-reaching version of the bow rudder emphasizes anchoring the bow, releasing the stern so that it could slide around. Leaning forward, weighing the bow, taking the weight from the stern, and sticking the blade near the bow to anchor it are mobilized to that end. The ABC version treats bow and stern on equal terms. Instead, it capitalizes on finding the most efficient pivot point on which to spin the kayak around its longitudinal center axis not unlike a table-top. The paddler remains fully upright throughout the turn.  Finally, the lower elbow is fully extended in the former and tucked into the pelvis in the latter--seems a bit safer to me.

I am yet to confirm this in the field, but I would guess that the ABC way would not work quite as well as the lean-forward version for turning into the wind. In practice, I only know that I can easily turn 180° or more on calm days but was barely able to do 90° with strong beam wind using ABC. The latter is much more efficient at producing quick radical changes of direction in tight quarters will less body contortion … not to mention it looks much more elegant and also makes your legs shake with excitement J

So what do you think—are these two different versions of the same skill or two different skills? Are we doing those who are learning the skills any favors by misdirecting their attention from the knee toward the bow and toward ruddering instead of pivoting and spinning? How about something like "gunwale swing" or "beam spin" instead? The way the kayak dances alongside the planted blade could almost pass as a dos-รก-dos dance move. Whatever you call it, give them both a try and see if it changes your relationship as much as it did for me. Whatever you decide, I'll always go to my spinning version to get a smile on my face and a tingle in the belly.

While we're at it, how about a cross-bow bow rudder that is initiated by bringing your paddle across the deck rather than the bow, has the blade planted at the cockpit rather than the bow, and uses the paddle as a pivot point rather than a rudder? Any takers?