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.

Can anyone help Keith Johnston find out about his ancestor’s guano trade ships?

Chincha Guano Islands, Peru, engraving published by The Illustrated London News February, 21st, 1863, photographed by Manuel González Olaechea y Franco

This London Illustrated News illustration of 1863 shows ships in the guano trade anchored among the Chinca guano islands off Peru. Image from the Wikipedia and photographed by Manuel González Olaechea y Franco

Regular reader and contributor Keith Johnston has written in to ask whether anyone can help him learn more about one of his forebears, Liverpool shipping agent and ship owner William Cliffe, who specialised in guano.

It seems Cliffe had four sailing barques ranging from 200 to 600 tons gross, all of which are mentioned in the 1883 Lloyds Register of Shipping.

Their trade was mainly in the valuable commodity of guano, ancient nitrate and phosphate-laden deposits of the faeces and urine of bats, seabirds, and seals used as a fertiliser and as an ingredient in gunpowder. It was found on remote islands in low rainfall areas, where there is little rainwater to wash away the nitrate fraction.

In what seems to be a textbook example of how foreign policy is often decided by commercial interests rather than by any sense of right or wrong, during guano’s heyday in the mid-19th century, the United States of America passed a law permitting US citizens to claim any guano island they found for themselves, so long as the guano recovered was to be used by US citizens.

Keith says the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool has been very helpful in tracking down this information, but wonders whether any readers have come across the ships listed as belonging to Cliffe, as he would like to try and find more detail about the actual ships, crews, cargos, ports of call and definitely pictures or drawings of them so that he can make models, if at all possible.

The vessels are:

  • Boldonsailing barque, 656 tons net, 689 tons gross, 628 tons under deck; 168.1ft LOA 32.2ft beam 19ft depth, built at Sunderland by Crown in January, 1873
  • Guatemala Packetsailing barque, 201 tons net, 326 tons gross, 110ft LOA 25ft beam 16.5ft depth, built by Harrington in 1852
  • Nimroudsailing barque, 670 tons net, 693 tons gross, 135ft LOA, 30ft beam, 20ft depth, built at Scarborough by Tindalls in 1853
  • Quito, sailing ship, 503 tons net, 503 tons gross, 117.5ft LOA, 28ft beam, 18.7ft depth, built at Sunderland in 1850

If you have any information, please pass it on to me at, and I’ll forward it to Keith.

PSHugh Jenkins has written in with some snippets of information about the guano trade that might be of interest. They turned up during his research into a sailing ancestor who worked for a Liverpool guano shipper. Hugh comments that the company mentioned, WJ Myers, was quite a substantial business, and yet today finding any reference to it is now very difficult.

Thanks Hugh!

Keith Johnston and friend saved from a dunking by a Selway Fisher-designed tender

Selway Fisher designed Skylark dinghy

Many of us become very attached to craft that serve us well – but tenders aren’t usually the object of our deep affections. However, Keith Johnston tells a story about an experience that taught him the value of his tender in a big way.

‘My friend and I have been sailing Devon Yawls for more than twenty five years simply because they are a modern fibreglass moulding of the Salcombe yawl.

‘Salcombe yawls are now hand built in top quality timbers and are £20,000 16’ dinghies that sail like serious deep sea boats and are a fiercely competed class in Salcombe. More importantly for me, they are based upon a very much tried and tested local inshore fishing boat. The locals know when a boat is good, and the Salcombe yawl is the best, so we’ve been sailing the Devon Yawl is an equivalent boat made in GRP from a mould taken off an a Salcombe yawl. (In fact, I have now graduated from the Devon Yawl to the Devon Dayboat, which is a Devon Yawl with a small cuddy) that provides a little shelter in rough weather or a camping shelter for two. Some of the original Devon Dayboats, like mine have a Stuart Turner 5hp inboard, which makes them reall useful all-round cruising boats.)

‘But back to my story. When we first started sailing yawls we moored the boat at various points on the River Tamar on the border between Cornwall and England. To get to her, we used a Fairey Duckling, which is a superb moulded double diagonal ply built dinghy loosely based on the World War II airborne lifeboats. These were made by Fairey Marine and were dropped from search and rescue planes so that ditched air crew in the North Atlantic and North Sea could rescue themselves. (For more on airborne lifeboats, click here; for more on Fairey Ducklings, click here.)

‘Believe me, the little Ducklings take after their big sister airborne lifeboats and are tough little boats, and we could just about carry the Duckling from the car to the tide line, which was sometimes 150 or 200 yards. As time went by, however, the Duckling seemed to get heavier (or had we got older?) and we realised the Duckling had become a collectors boat and was too valuable to be used as a general beach dinghy any longer. So we decided to try and find a cheap dinghy as a replacement.

‘The first boat I ever built Continue reading “Keith Johnston and friend saved from a dunking by a Selway Fisher-designed tender”