With sail-and-oar boats it’s common to use the rudder while sailing and remove it, retract it, or let it trail, idle, while rowing. There are times when a rudder can be an asset while you’re at the oars.
The Gokstad faering I built for a 1,000-mile row up the Inside Passage of British Columbia and Alaska was a very well-mannered boat, but with two of us rowing I often found myself pulling harder on one side to maintain a straight course. It’s all too easy to assume it’s the other rower who’s making the corrections necessary, but leveling accusations against a partner isn’t good for crew morale. I made a small rudder especially for rowing and connected its tiller with two lines to a footboard tiller. That kept the peace aboard the boat and allowed both of us to row each in our own way without quarreling about someone putting uneven pressure on the oars.
Rowing in a crosswind can also require working at the oars to hold a course. I like to row my Whitehall from the aft rowing station—I prefer the stretcher I’ve rigged there and the absence of a thwart over my shins, the problem I have at the center rowing station. With my weight aft, the bow rides high and is prone to falling off in a crosswind; I have to pull harder on the leeward oar. I already had a footboard on the stretcher, so rigging it with a foot-controlled tiller was easy. A new tiller line, a pair of pulleys, two bits of wood, and a bolt were all it took. I’ve rigged the steering system with a yoke on the rudderhead, but it would be just as easy to attach the lines to a tiller.
Initially I used a plywood plate for the “tiller” so the pressure of my feet would keep it from shifting. The idea was to hold the rudder at a bit of an angle to counter weathercocking but steering with it was a bit awkward because I had to take the pressure off both feet to move the plate. And rowing in wind and waves required only momentary angling of the rudder to make course corrections. Most of the time I didn’t need to steer and the rudder could trail freely. The new version of the system uses an ash stick and is much easier to operate.
A rudder will add a bit of drag but won’t slow you down as much as putting most of your effort on one side of the boat. Many years ago, I was leading a race in a kayak that had a rudder. To keep drag to a minimum I hadn’t deployed the rudder. That worked to my advantage for most of the course where the wind was on the nose. The last hundred yards of the course were across the wind, but I didn’t want to pause to deploy it and lose ground to the kayaker trailing me. I fought the weathercocking by paddling hard on the windward side. It gave the advantage to the other competitor, who had his rudder deployed, and he beat me to the finish line.
The Whitehall has always been a pleasure to row since I built it in 1983, but the recent adding stretchers, a forward-view mirror, a sliding seat, and now stretcher steering are all improvements that I wish I’d made a long time ago.