Keith Johnston discovers that forward-facing rowing really does work in a home-built boat regular Keith Johnston has written in to tell the story of his forward-facing rowing boat Gizmo, which sounds quite remarkable to me. I knew people had tried this I idea many times – but hadn’t realised they were actually practical.

Here’s what he has to say:

‘Five years or so ago I saw a very short video clip of a couple who I later found out to be Ron Rantilla and his wife, demonstrating a rowing boat that allowed you to face the way the boat progressed while rowing, as opposed to facing in the opposite direction from that which the boat progressed. Surely that had to be a trick?

‘After watching the clip a few times I moved on. But my mind did not – I occasionally came back to ‘well how did they do this or that?’

‘Eventually, on a wet Sunday afternoon in February I was clearing up in my shed, after finishing an electric slipper launch, I started to experiment with some off cuts of timber to see if the rowing frame could be replicated.  After a lot of wrong slots I eventually came up with the frame that is at the heart of the whole mechanism. Wow, this just might work!

‘I don’t do tin or wire, only wood or plastic, so I asked a pal if he could fabricate the universal joints just as I had sketched out but make them so that minor adjustments could be made if need be in future. A week later he had produced the joints and I went on to fix them to the frame. They sort of worked – at least they worked enough to get my enthusiasm to progress the project to a working prototype. Two weeks later it worked.
‘Ron Rantilla is a very clever man to have worked this out from scratch.  I later found out that there were lots of recorded attempts at forward facing rowing systems but none worked properly where as in my view my take on this one really did work.

‘The real breakthrough by Rantilla was to move the point of effort from the rowlock to a pivot-point approximately where your hands would be if rowing normally and then put your hands down the oar towards the point where the rowlock would normally be positioned.

‘In changing the points of contact as above you lose the increased mechanical efficiency by eliminating the leverage given from the rowlock or fulcrum. So if you only pulled the oar by hand from near the gunwale life would be hard, much harder than rowing in the normal fashion.

‘This loss of power was very cleverly overcome by connecting your foot to the oar at a point where your hands could naturally reach.  This is done by suspending a long pedal arm from the same height as the pivot point for the oars with a swivelling pedal at the bottom, the same type of action as on a bicycle. From the pedal, a cord goes back to the side of the seat round a pulley and up to the oar.

‘You can then pull on the oar by a handle attached to the cord just before is attaches to the oar, and – bingo! – with both your arms and legs rowing the muscular effort needed to push the boat is spread between the four big muscles of your body instead of just two. So I would say you get a lot more power for a lot less effort.

‘It certainly feels that way after a couple of miles at a steady pace. The system sounds whacky but in fact it is very reliable and once tuned to your preferences relatively fault-free.

‘There are some bonuses too. When the oar is pulled to the end of the stroke the blade lifts out of the water, feathers and is pulled back to the beginning of the next stroke by a built in system. No more catching crabs!  Also, you can row by just using your feet leaving your hands free to fish or preferably, eat. Naturally you can row with one oar and back, or steady with the other for manoeuvring in tight spaces.

‘At that time it was not possible to buy plans of either machine or boats, you had to buy the whole set up, which was well out of my league in terms of cost, so I again did a sketch of one of his boats and chose an 18ft cross between a Canadian canoe and a dory with a flat bottom but a really beautiful shear line and quite a severe tumble home amidships.

‘I built her of stitch and glue construction out of the stock that I already had, but made the modification of putting two parallel bulkheads amidships and then when she was structurally finished cut her in two so that each half could be bolted back together. This was to enable the whole package to go on a small 9ft custom  trailer rather than a very slim 18ft footer with the towing trailer length of over 21ft.

‘The shorter length allowed her to be more easily towed, parked in public car parks and more importantly parked at home. I coated her inside and out with epoxy resin and painted the hull inside and out with Brightside enamel. I also indulged in a bit of excess by making small foredeck and after deck in light and dark striped timber by using sapele and English chestnut with a finish of epoxy, and then used up some Epiphanes varnish to give depth to the decks. That stuff really is God’s gift to boat builders – I have previously used this approach on the slipper launch to great effect. There is sealed built-in foam buoyancy under the fore deck.

‘During this time I had also made another rowing frame so that the boat would have two rowing positions. It makes life a lot easier to share the workload and is much more sociable to have a crew to help in times of stress or long distances and buy the beer!

‘The drive picture shows her finished and ready to go to the river. I think the shape is simply fantastic. The other pictures are of her trials.

‘On her first outing we took about fifteen minutes to get the hang of using feet and arms in sync to achieve the most efficient motion but in general she worked a treat. In fact on our last turn for home we over took two chaps in a dinghy with a reasonably sized outboard so quickly that they lost concentration and ran aground on a sand bank while trying to catch up by taking a short cut.

‘When we eventually all came ashore they were astounded at the speed that we had achieved with what looked to them as relative ease. We were a bit puffed but had well recovered by the time they arrived! According to their GPS we had achieved 7 knots so we were well pleased.

‘The hull is extremely seaworthy and cuts through the water very easily without making a fuss at sizeable waves we felt very safe at all times, much more so than in a conventional narrow skiff or canoe. I don’t like getting wet!

‘Since then I have made one modification and changed the multiple bungee tensioners, which I had used to experiment with to find the correct tension for proper springs which has made life a lot more consistent but other than that a number of people and children have had a lot of fun in her. I think she is the only double position version of her in the UK.

‘She has now had two seasons of use and is up for sale as she is to energetic for me, but has been a fabulous project I really take my hat off to Ron Rowenta, I just wish I had come across the boat twenty years earlier.

‘I am led to understand that Ron Rowenta now sells plans for the boat in various lengths on the internet.

‘Oh! And by the way – I am also selling another boat – my beloved 16ft two-masted Devon Yawl dayboat – after 18 years of fun. So if you’re interested feel free to contact me.

Thanks Keith! Anyone who is interested in a Devon Yawl should please email me in the first instance. I’ll pass your message on the Keith.

5 thoughts on “Keith Johnston discovers that forward-facing rowing really does work in a home-built boat”

  1. I rowed Gizmo with my mother and it is great fun and stable. The boat looks amazing although I don’t think the mechanism is ready for production boats yet.

    Boating is about fun though and it certainly delivers on that front!

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