Kayak weathercocking is the tendency of a moving kayak to turn into the wind. It’s caused by a difference in pressure between the bow and stern of your kayak, and it can feel frustrating if you don’t know how to correct for it. Luckily, there are tools and techniques that can keep you on course even when the wind blows. Kayak tracking is the extent that a kayak holds its course when underway. A kayak with high or good tracking stays on course even when a turning force such as a sweep stroke acts on it. A kayak with high tracking can weathercock and without right equipment can be a bear to keep on course.
Understanding Kayak Weathercocking
When you paddle forward, water flows around your kayak. Near the bow, the layers of water remains relatively parallel to each other as you paddle along. At some point along your hull, the flow switches from laminar flow, which is water that basically hugs your hull shape, to turbulent flow. Near the stern of your kayak, the flow separates from the hull and causes an eddy near at the stern of your kayak.
The different flows around your kayak create the pressure differences that cause kayak weathercocking. Near the bow of the kayak, the water is relatively undisturbed and maintains high pressure. As the flow continues along the hull, the turbulence creates less pressure and near the stern where the eddies form, you have the least amount of pressure. So, when the wind blows equally across the length of your hull, the high pressure near the bow helps anchor the bow into the water against the wind, and the hull areas near low pressure get pushed away from the direction of the wind. This cause the bow to appear to turn into the wind. Check out the kayak weathercocking diagram below.
Counteracting Kayak Weathercocking
There are two ways to counteract kayak weathercocking, either with equipment or technique.
For equipment use either a skeg or a rudder.
A skeg extends and retracts from the bottom of your kayak. It works by moving into high pressure and adding surface area. Imagine all the turbulence around the back of your kayak. The further away you get from that turbulence, the less there is. So, when you drop a skeg, the deeper it goes the less turbulence it encounters. When it reaches higher pressure, it counteracts the kayak weathercocking. Additionally, it provides more underwater surface area that the wind must push against, which helps stop weathercocking. You vary the depth of the skeg until you reach the point where weathercocking stops. Pushing it deeper may cause leecocking, which is the opposite of weathercocking.
A rudder drops down behind your kayak, and you can use it to help turn you boat. For kayak weathercocking, it works similarly to a skeg in that it provides extra surface area and can contact higher pressure, but because it doesn’t drop as deep as a skeg, it’s unlikely to encounter as much higher pressure. A rudder can also redirect the flow, which works against weathercocking. If your kayak is turning into wind from the right, give it a bit of left rudder and hold it in a position that stops the weathercocking.
The two main techniques for counteracting kayak weathercocking are edging the kayak or using sweep strokes.
To edge a kayak, you dip the windward side of your kayak towards the water by shifting your weight onto your windward side buttocks and lifting with the opposite knee. When edged your kayak creates an underwater profile that helps it turn away from the lower side. So, in the case of wind coming from the right, you dip the right side of your kayak towards the water.
To use sweep strokes, you do sweep strokes on the windward side of the kayak and vertical strokes on the opposite side.
While both techniques work, over the long haul it’s tiring and sometimes frustrating. Having a skeg or rudder is more enjoyable.
Kayak Weathercocking vs. Tracking
Kayaks with strong tracking aren’t immune to the pressure differences that cause kayak weathercocking. But because most strong tracking kayaks don’t respond well to sweeps without significant edging. This can make it difficult to counteract weathercocking by techniques alone. A strong tracking kayak may need a rudder or skeg.
Ideally, you want to have a kayak that responds to both techniques and equipment to counteract kayak weathercocking. To get one, you must also account for a hull’s ability to respond to kayak weathercocking in an efficient way. A hull that allows a paddler to easily correct weathercocking, either through corrective strokes or edging, feels less affected even if it weathercocks more easily than a kayak that doesn’t respond well to edging or corrective strokes, which might be the cause with a kayak that has strong tracking.
Learn more about laminar and turbulent flow in John Winter’s The Shape of the Canoe.