All About the Rudder on a Sailboat

Published Categorized as Boat Parts

The rudder on a sailboat is one of those important parts that often gets overlooked. It’s hidden underwater most of the time and usually performs as expected when we ask something of it.

But when was the last time you seriously considered your sailboat rudder? Do you have a plan if it fails? Here’s a look at various designs of sail rudder, along with the basics of how it works and why it’s there.

Table of Contents

sailboat rudder visible at low tide
sailboat rudder visible at low tide

What Is a Boat Rudder?

The rudder is the underwater part of the boat that helps it turn and change direction. It’s mounted on the rear of the boat. When the wheel or tiller in the cockpit is turned, the rudder moves to one side or another. That, in turn, moves the boat’s bow left or right.

When it comes to sailing, rudders also offer a counterbalance to the underwater resistance caused by the keel. This enables the boat to sail in a straight line instead of just spinning around the keel.

How Are Sailboat Rudders Different Than Keels?

Sailboat hull designs vary widely when you view them out of the water. But while the actual shape and sizes change, they all have two underwater features that enable them to sail–a rudder and a keel.

The rudder is mounted at the back of the boat and controls the boat’s heading or direction as indicated by the compass.

The keel is mounted around the center of the boat. Its job is to provide a counterbalance to the sails. In other words, as the wind presses on the sails, the weight of the ballast in the keel and the water pressure on the sides of the keel keeps the boat upright and stable.

When sailing, the keel makes a dynamic force as water moves over it. This force counters the leeway made by air pressure on the sails and enables the boat to sail windward instead of only blowing downwind like a leaf on the surface.

How Does the Rudder Work?

The rudder is a fundamental feature of all boats. Early sailing vessels used a simple steering oar to get the job done. Over the years, this morphed into the rudder we know today.

However, thinking about a rudder in terms of a steering oar is still useful in understanding its operation. All it is is an underwater panel that the helmsperson can control. You can maintain a course by trailing the oar behind the boat while sailing. You can also change the boat’s heading by moving it to one side or the other.

The rudders on modern sailboats are a little slicker than simple oars, of course. They are permanently mounted and designed for maximum effectiveness and efficiency.

But their operating principle is much the same. Rudders work by controlling the way water that flows over them. When they move to one side, the water’s flow rate increases on the side opposite the turn. This faster water makes less pressure and results in a lifting force. That pulls the stern in the direction opposite the turn, moving the bow into the turn.

Nearly all boats have a rudder that works exactly the same. From 1,000-foot-long oil tankers to tiny 8-foot sailing dinghies, a rudder is a rudder. The only boats that don’t need one are powered by oars or have an engine whose thrust serves the same purpose, as is the case with an outboard motor.

Operating the Rudder on a Sailboat

Rudders are operated in one of two ways–with a wheel or a tiller. The position where the rudder is operated is called the helm of a boat.

Wheel Steering vs. Tiller Steering

Ever wonder, “What is the steering wheel called on a boat?” Boat wheels come in all shapes and sizes, but they work a lot like the wheel in an automobile. Turn it one way, and the boat turns that way by turning the rudder.

A mechanically simpler method is the tiller. You’ll find tiller steering on small sailboats and dinghies. Some small outboard powerboats also have tiller steering. Instead of a wheel, the tiller is a long pole extending forward from the rudder shaft’s top. The helmsperson moves the tiller to the port or starboard, and the bow moves in the opposite direction. It sounds much more complicated on paper than it is in reality.

Even large sailboats will often be equipped with an emergency tiller. It can be attached quickly to the rudder shaft if any of the fancy linkages that make the wheel work should fail.

sailboat wheel

Various Sail Boat Rudder Designs

Now, let’s look at the various types of rudders you might see if you took a virtual walk around a boatyard. Since rudders are mostly underwater on the boat’s hull, it’s impossible to compare designs when boats are in the water.

Keep in mind that these rudders work the same way and achieve the same results. Designs may have their pluses and minuses, but from the point of view of the helmsperson, the differences are negligible. The overall controllability and stability of the boat are designed from many factors, and the type of rudder it has is only one of those.

You’ll notice that rudder design is closely tied to keel design. These two underwater features work together to give the boat the sailing characteristics the designer intended.

Full Keel Rudder Sailboat

The classic, robust offshore sailboat is designed with a full keel that runs from stem to stern. With this sort of underwater profile, it only makes sense that the rudder would be attached to the trailing edge of that enormous keel. On inboard-powered sailboats, the propeller is usually mounted inside an opening called the aperture between the keel and rudder.

The advantages of this design are simplicity and robustness. The keel is integrated into the hull and protects the rudder’s entire length. Beyond reversing into an obstacle, anything the boat might strike would hit the keel first and would be highly unlikely to damage the rudder. Not only does the keel protect it, but it also provides a very strong connection point for it to be attached to.

Full keel boats are known for being slow, although there are modern derivatives of these designs that have no slow pokes. Their rudders are often large and effective. They may not be the most efficient design, but they are safe and full keels ride more comfortably offshore than fin-keeled boats.

Plenty of stout offshore designs sport full keel rudders. The Westsail 38s, Lord Nelsons, Cape Georges, Bristol/Falmouth Cutters, or Tayana 37s feature a full keel design.

A modified full keel, like one with a cutaway forefoot, also has a full keel-style rudder. These are more common on newer designs, like the Albergs, Bristols, Cape Dorys, Cabo Ricos, Island Packets, or the older Hallberg-Rassys.

full keel rudder

Skeg-Hung Rudders

A design progression was made from full keel boats to long-fin keelboats, and the rudder design changed with it. Designers used a skeg as the rudder became more isolated from the keel. The skeg is a fixed structure from which you can mount the rudder. This enables the rudder to look and function like a full keel rudder but is separated from the keel for better performance.

The skeg-hung rudder has a few of the same benefits as a full keel rudder. It is protected well and designed robustly. But, the cutaways in the keel provide a reduced wetted surface area and less drag underwater, resulting in improved sailing performance overall.

Larger boats featuring skeg-mounted rudders include the Valiant 40, Pacific Seacraft 34, 37, and 40, newer Hallberg-Rassys, Amels, or the Passport 40.

It’s worth noting that not all skegs protect the entire rudder. A partial skeg extends approximately half the rudder’s length, allowing designers to make a balanced rudder.

skeg-hung rudder

Spade Rudder

With higher-performance designs, keels have become smaller and thinner. Fin keel boats use more hydrodynamic forces instead of underwater area to counter the sail’s pressure. With the increased performance, skegs have gone the way of the dinosaurs. Nowadays, rudders are sleek, high aspect ratio spade designs that make very little drag. They can be combined with a number of different keel types, including fin, wing keels, swing keels, or bulb keels.

The common argument made against spade rudders is that they are connected to the boat by only the rudder shaft. As a result, an underwater collision can easily bend the shaft or render the rudder unusable. In addition, these rudders put a high load on the steering components, like the bearings, which are also more prone to failure than skeg or full keel designs. For these reasons, long-distance cruisers have traditionally chosen more robust designs for the best bluewater cruising sailboats.

But, on the other hand, spade rudders are very efficient. They turn the boat quickly and easily while contributing little to drag underwater.

Spade rudders are common now on any boat known for performance. All racing boats have a spade rudder, like most production boats used for club racing. Pick any modern fin keel boat from Beneteau, Jeanneau, Catalina, or Hunter, and you will find a spade rudder. Spade rudders are common on all modern cruising catamarans, from the Geminis to the Lagoons, Leopards, and Fountaine Pajots favored by cruisers and charter companies.

spade rudder

Variations on Designs

Here are two alternative designs you might see out on the water.

sailing catamarans have spade rudders

Transom-Hung or Outboard Rudders

An outboard rudder is hung off the boat’s transom and visible while the boat is in the water. Most often, this design is controlled by a tiller. They are common on small sailing dingies, where the rudder and tiller are removable for storage and transport. The rudder is mounted with a set of hardware called the pintle and gudgeon.

Most outboard rudders are found on small daysailers and dinghies. There are a few classic big-boat designs that feature a transom-hung rudder, however. For example, the Westsail 38, Alajuela, Bristol/Falmouth Cutters, Cape George 36, and some smaller Pacific Seacrafts (Dana, Flicka) have outboard rudders.

outboard rudder

Twin Sailing Rudder Designs

A modern twist that is becoming more common on spade rudder boats is the twin sailboat rudder. Twin rudders feature two separate spade rudders mounted in a vee-shaped arrangement. So instead of having one rudder pointed down, each rudder is mounted at an angle.

Like many things that trickle down to cruising boats, the twin rudder came from high-performance racing boats. By mounting the rudders at an angle, they are more directly aligned in the water’s flow when the boat is healed over for sailing. Plus, two rudders provide some redundancy should one have a problem. The twin rudder design is favored by designers looking to make wide transom boats.

There are other, less obvious benefits of twin rudders as well. These designs are easier to control when maneuvering in reverse. They are also used on boats that can be “dried out” or left standing on their keel at low tide. These boats typically combine the twin rudders with a swing keel, like Southerly or Sirius Yachts do. Finally, twin rudders provide much better control on fast-sailing hulls when surfing downwind.

Unbalanced vs. Balanced Rudders

Rudders can be designed to be unbalanced or balanced. The difference is all in how they feel at the helm. The rudder on a bigger boat can experience a tremendous amount of force. That makes turning the wheel or tiller a big job and puts a lot of strain on the helmsperson and all of the steering components.

A balanced rudder is designed to minimize these effects and make turning easier. To accomplish this, the rudder post is mounted slightly aft of the rudder’s forward edge. As a result, when it turns, a portion of the leading edge of the rudder protrudes on the opposite side of the centerline. Water pressure on that side then helps move the rudder.

Balanced rudders are most common in spade or semi-skeg rudders.

Sail Rudder Failures

Obviously, the rudder is a pretty important part of a sailboat. Without it, the boat cannot counter the forces put into the sails and cannot steer in a straight line. It also cannot control its direction, even under power.

A rudder failure of any kind is a serious emergency at sea. Should the rudder be lost–post and all–there’s a real possibility of sinking. But assuming the leak can be stopped, coming up with a makeshift rudder is the only way you’ll be able to continue to a safe port.

Rudder preventative maintenance is some of the most important maintenance an owner can do. This includes basic things that can be done regularly, like checking for frayed wires or loose bolts in the steering linkage system. It also requires occasionally hauling the boat out of the water to inspect the rudder bearings and fiberglass structure.

Emergency Outboard Rudder Options

Many serious offshore cruisers install systems that can work as an emergency rudder in extreme circumstances. For example, the Hydrovane wind vane system can be used as an emergency rudder. Many other wind vane systems have similar abilities. This is one reason why these systems are so popular with long-distance cruisers.

There are also many ways to jury rig a rudder. Sea stories abound with makeshift rudders from cabinet doors or chopped-up sails. Sail Magazine featured a few great ideas for rigging emergency rudders.

Looking to Sail Into the Sunset? Grab the Wheel, Steer Your Sail Boat Rudder, and Get Out There!

Understanding your sail rudder and its limitations is important in planning for serious cruising. Every experienced sailor will tell you the trick to having a good passage is anticipating problems you might have before you have them. That way, you can be prepared, take preventative measures, and hopefully never deal with those issues on the water.

Sail Boat Rudder FAQs

What is the rudder on a sailboat?

The rudder is an underwater component that both helps the sailboat steer in a straight line when sailing and turn left or right when needed.

What is the difference between a rudder and a keel?

The rudder and the keel are parts of a sailboat mounted underwater on the hull. The rudder is used to turn the boat left or right, while the keel is fixed in place and counters the effects of the wind on the sails.

What is a rudder used for on a boat?

The rudder is the part of the boat that turns it left or right

By Matt C

Matt has been boating around Florida for over 25 years in everything from small powerboats to large cruising catamarans. He currently lives aboard a 38-foot Cabo Rico sailboat with his wife Lucy and adventure dog Chelsea. Together, they cruise between winters in The Bahamas and summers in the Chesapeake Bay.

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