Forward-facing rowing systems are nothing new. You’ll find many old patents for devices that use gears or pivots and connecting rods to get rowers to see where they’re going. The Forward-Facing Rowing system from Gig Harbor Boat Works (GHBW) was inspired by a mechanism from the late 1800s and was redesigned to be manufactured in welded stainless steel. Each unit weighs just under 7 lbs, including the base that is bolted to the gunwale. The upper part of the mechanism pivots on the base to allow the vertical motion of the oar blade in and out of the water. The spoon-bladed spruce oar is in two pieces—a 30″ handle and a 72″ blade section—each bolted to a cradle that pivots on a 1/2″ bronze pin. A connecting rod joins the cradles and transfers the swing of the handle to the blade.
I mounted the system on my 14′ New York Whitehall. It took less than two hours to figure out the placement (it just fit in between the oarlock pads of the middle and aft stations), make curved oak pads, and attach the bases and pads to the gunwales. The articulated oars can be removed by pulling the hairclip cotter pins and the 3/8″-diameter pivot rods, but the rig can stay fixed to the boat for trailering. The blades can swing aft and into the boat.
It doesn’t take any time at all to get used to rowing straight with the forward-facing oars. Everything else—turning, stopping, and backing—is a different matter. My rowing instincts have been ingrained for over a half century and are the opposite of what’s required. While doing the opposite is an easy concept to grasp, it’s surprisingly difficult to put into action. Almost every time I’d make a guess about the stroke I needed to do for turning or backing, I’d be wrong. You can’t feather the oars with the rig, so that element of the stroke doesn’t add to the confusion. It helped to think how I’d make the stroke in the water with just my hand, but getting to the point where I could make the right stroke without thinking would just take time, just as it did when I was getting used to a Norwegian push-pull tiller. I should mention that the initial awkwardness wasn’t frustrating; it was actually entertaining, like a brainteaser. And while I thought I’d feel hampered by non-feathering oars, it didn’t bother me at all.
Forward-facing rowing has quite a different feeling. With standard rowing, you move your upper body weight toward the bow as you’re pulling, and if we take the oars out of the equation, there’s an equal and opposite reaction pushing the boat back. During the recovery, you swing aft, pulling the boat forward. The shifting of your weight takes some of the forward momentum provided by oars during the drive and puts that energy into the boat during the recovery. In racing shells, where the crew weight far exceeds that of the boat, the speed peaks during the recovery when the oars are out of the water—the crew may seem to be sliding aft, but they are actually pulling the boat forward. In heavier rowing boats, the swings in your weight tend to even out the speed of the boat.
In forward-facing rowing, you lean aft during the drive phase of the stroke, pushing the boat forward in tandem with the oars. During the recovery, the boat gets pulled back as you reach toward the catch. The shifts in your weight increase the fluctuations in the boat’s speed.
During the drive I felt like the boat was slipping out from under me. The catch—coming when the boat’s momentum has been bled off by drag and by my weight shifting toward the bow—feels quite heavy. Each stroke feels like the first few strokes of regular rowing taken from a standing start. I could make the catch feel lighter when I rowed keeping my torso upright.
The geometry of the device may also play a role in how the catch feels. The handle of the oar and the blade do not mirror each other. When the blades are perpendicular to the boat’s centerline, the handles are forward at 50° to the centerline; when the handles are square to the boat, the blades are at 135°. In a full stroke, the handles move through 70° (25° to 95°) and the blades move through 100° (40° to 140°). The GHBW web site notes: “Oar blade speed is increased because the oar cradles are asymmetric; the blade travels 15% faster than a traditional oar with the same handle speed.” That “gearing” isn’t uniform throughout the stroke. When I moved the handle through its range 10° increments from catch to release, the blade moved 23°, 19°, 25°, 23°, 12°, 10°, and 8°. The geometry of the pivots and connecting rod put a longer sweep and thus a higher load on the first half of the stroke.
To focus on the physics and the geometry is to miss the point of forward-facing rowing: the view over the bow. Seeing things as they approach is much more interesting than seeing things as they grow distant. I enjoyed poking around the marinas and shipyards that line the waterways near home. The rowing rig worked smoothly and quietly, and I gradually stop thinking about it and just enjoy the scenery.
The most fun I had with the rig came as a surprise. My son, Nate, took up the forward-facing oars and I rowed in the Whitehall’s forward station. Rowing face-to-face we could converse easily, and by mirroring each other we could synchronize or stroke. Our shifts in weight cancelled each other and the boat stayed in trim. We made great speed and had eyes looking forward and back. I’ve done some long crossings rowing in tandem with normal oars, and after a while conversation gets abandoned because it’s hard to hear one another and you can’t see the person you’re with. Nate and I chattered the whole time we were rowing facing each other.
While I’ve always been devoted to the art and craft of conventional of rowing and will remain so, the forward-facing rowing rig opened up some very appealing possibilities.
Christopher Cunningham is the editor of Small Boats Monthly.
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