C: The Front-Rower

Kublu has made me beat the gun on this one.
Behind me is the Front-Rower, my latest toy.
Look “Front-Rower” up on the internet, it’s fascinating..
Examine the T-shirt.
Now move on to the second photograph, and you’ll understand Kublu’s comment, when she said, ”

Here’s an article I have been peddling round the more relaxed small boat magazines, without success. Well, if it’s not good enough for them to publish, it’s good enough for me to make an editorial decision.
So here we go.

My bigamous love affair with two rowboats

I have been a fairly good oarsman for about 65 years now. Not magnificent by any means, but I can manoeuvre precisely at a dock, I can feather beautifully, I can do that sort of single-handed sculling …  where you stand in the stern with one hand in your pocket and the other effortlessly propelling the boat while you calmly survey the horizon. But about forty years ago the recreational kayaking boom burst on the scene, and my dignity suffered. Kayakers are so smug, “Look at us,” they seem to say. “We can see where we’re going, and you can’t.”

I finally have my revenge. I bought a Front-Rower from Ron Rantilla. Now when I see bunch of kayakers I slip inconspicuously up to them until they notice that I am facing them as I row. Their eyes pop. And then … I fold my arms and row past them with my feet. In most cases their jaws satisfactorily drop.

At this stage you could just turn on the computer and search for “Front-Rower” on the internet. Or you could carry on reading.

An oar is a lever. There is a handle at the blunt end of the oar. That is where you apply the pressure. In a conventional rowboat the fulcrum is the oarlock, placed on the gunwale about a quarter of the way down the oar. The fulcrum multiplies the force of your initial power, which is released through the blade at the other end of the oar. So the sequence is: hands, fulcrum, power. When you pull the oars toward you the fulcrum switches the direction of movement … and kayakers make fun of you.

Now consider the Front-Rower, which is sold as a separate drop-in unit. The device is deceptively simple, in theory. (From the photographs, however, you can see that it is a little more complicated in practice.) You simply switch the positions of hands and fulcrum. The fulcrum is now a pillar in the centre of the boat. The end of the oars are attached to the pillar with swivels that allow them to rotate (more on that later). The handles are now about a quarter of the way down the oar and of course the blade is still in the water moving the boat. But the hands and the blade are now moving in the same direction. You can see where you’re going.

But there’s more to the Front-Rower than that. If you really want to increase the power of your stroke in a conventional rowboat you will invest in a sliding seat. With that device your feet stay firmly planted on the stretcher, and your legs push your whole body backward. But there is an alternative. You can keep your body firmly planted and push your feet forward against a sliding pair of pedals. There is an advantage to this. In shorter boats, as the weight of your body moves to and fro the boat tends to bob up and down rather than flow straight through the water. (There used to be a commercial version of this. I was dubious about its virtues, but I had a chance to try one out at a Small Boat Journal show back in the nineteen-eighties, and I couldn’t tell the difference except for the smoothness of my progress.) The Front-Rower has sliding foot pedals. The oars are connected to the foot pedals by thin cables that run from the oar handles back to the rowing seat and forward to the pedals. So you can row with your arms alone, or conventionally with your arms and feet, or dramatically with your feet alone, to the consternation of kayakers.

We’re not finished yet. I mentioned that the oars are connected to the pillars by a kind of rotating swivel. The rotation of the swivel is controlled by the cable that also controls the oars. The oars feather automatically! I watch it operate with fascination. As you pull through the water the oars are submerged and square on. Push your hands forward on the recovery and the oars emerge and automatically feather. Start the pull and they square off and drop.

That’s the theory. What is it like in practice? I’ll give you a comparison. I also own one of Arch Davies’ Penobscot 14s. It sails comfortably with a single lug, and rows beautifully with conventional oars. I have freedom in the Penobscot, freedom to jump in casually off the dock, manoeuvre out through the other boats, backwater either with my oars in unison or alternately, scull from the stern as described above, and of course, feather with extreme elegance. This is all done skilfully and immodestly.

It’s different with the Front-Rower. I have used it in two boats, a 15 foot Ian Oughtread decked double paddle canoe, (Which alas I have no more. A few years ago I accidenatally acquired one with a cosier cockpit, and I sacrificed this one in the cause of domestic harmony.

I now have the machine in an18 foot Harbor Cruiser from a kit provided by Ron Rantilla. I don’t just casually hop into the craft. I insert myself carefully among the web of cables, like a pilot in a tiny complicated cockpit. Once installed, however, I am very comfortable, in a cane seat with a backrest. (There is an extra advantage here for me; at my age I tend to get blisters on my bum from an ordinary wooden thwart.) Now I start to manoeuvre out on my narrow berth. To begin with, because of the way the oars are connected to the pillar they ship rather awkwardly. They are sectional so I normally disconnect them at the dock. In addition, backwatering is possible, but not graceful. So I keep a single paddle in the boat. Now I’m out from the dock and ready to go. Legs and arms move in unison, the boat moves smoothly through the water, I’m sitting comfortably … and I can see where I’m going! What a delight!

I spend my summers at a marina in Victoria, British Columbia. My normal aquatic stroll is out around buoy V25, a relaxing forty minute circuit, but with a baffling propensity to produce sudden changes in the direction and strength of the tidal current, whether flooding or ebbing. Usually I’m in the Front-Rower; occasionally I use the Penobscot.
Both have their virtues; I feel like a lucky bigamist. The Penobscot is a fully traditional experience, demanding a certain level of skill if you don’t want to embarrass yourself. I also have to spend an inordinate amount of time twisting my head around to correct tidal drift. The Front-Rower provides a full body workout immensely more enjoyable than anything available in the gym. And of course I can see where I’m going. Any misgivings? Well, there’s one. When I’m in the Penobscot the obvious and admirable skill is all my own. I look nearly as skilful in the Front-Rower, but there the skill is all in the brain of Ron Rantilla, sitting innocently thousands of miles to the east, on the coast of another ocean. I am simply the instrument of his intelligence. When you consider the intricacy of details in the Front-Rower it is obvious that it did not suddenly miraculously appear like Aphrodite in the foam. He must have spent years fine-tuning his original inspi

I constantly tell Kublu that I love her deeply, passionately and permanently. I feel the same way about both the boats I row.

I suggest you do google the Front-Rower on the internet. Ron Rantilla’s site provides a logical and lively introduction to his brain-child.



  1. I feel such an idjit! All these years of rowing, qajaq-ing and sailing and I always thought front-rowing was what I’ve done since childhood to get a balanced tan or rest biceps and lats by swiveling around on the seat to use triceps, pecs and abs… pushing the oar handles rather than pulling.

    Utterly embarrassed.

    • Yep. It’s like the invention of the wheel … or Irish whisky.

  2. Hi Mick,
    I think you should end this page with the picture of the back of your t-shirt. Symmetry!

  3. Hello Mick, I saw a front rower at a wooden boat display at Granville Island a couple of years ago. I was hooked on sight. Now that i’ve saved my bucks, and visited Ron Rantilla, I have finally ordered one. The build starts in January. Have you any links or websites for a wooden boat club in Vancouver
    or Victoria? Thanks George

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