The first boat I built was a kayak that I designed after looking at the drawings of Arctic kayaks in The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. The kayak got me afloat, but more importantly, taught me how little I knew about boats. The unremarkable appearance, construction, and performance of my kayak set me on a path to see what traditional boats could teach me. Those with a long history, refined by generations of watermen whose livelihoods and very lives depended upon them, interested me most.
Greenland kayaks taught me about the seakeeping abilities of slender, low-profile hulls. They might make for a wet ride but they were hardly bothered by high winds. On stormy days when I saw no other boats venturing out on Puget Sound, I could paddle with confidence through steep breaking waves and stinging spray. My baidarkas, both single and double, showed me how a flexible hull can maintain speed in rough water by yielding to waves. The ancient design of a Gokstad faering proved that a hull formed by only three strakes could be so sleek in the water that its wake could be almost invisible in water scuffed by a light breeze. My sprit-rigged sneakbox may have been designed for waterfowling, but showed it could jump on plane and fly.
I pushed those boats and others hard to see what they could do, and at the same time I was discovering what I was capable of. They helped me come to terms with self-doubt, fear, discomfort, and, on the long cruises, even loneliness.
I built all of those boats while I was in my 20s and 30s when I was as strong as I would ever be. I was rarely outpaced by anyone whether I was paddling, rowing, or bicycling. At 68, I still like to push hard, but I’m not as fast and I don’t have the same endurance. I get passed frequently. I’ve adjusted my expectations but not by letting go of the effort to go farther or faster. I ride my bike through neighborhood side streets to avoid the younger, faster cyclists on the bike paths. And I built a coracle, a boat that is incapable of high speed or great distance.
A few years ago, I’d made a folding coracle-like tender for my little sail-oar-motor cruiser and had grown to like the feel of a boat so small that none of it is beyond arm’s reach. It was an awkward boat to propel—a standard canoe stroke spins it in circles—until I discovered the slash-and-pull paddle stroke seen in films of coracles from the 1930s. The traditional form of the coracle has its origins even farther back to pre-Roman times, more than 2,000 years ago, and consists of bent saplings, usually willow or hazel, interwoven or lashed together and covered with an animal hide. To see what I could learn from that ancient design, I decided to build one.
I knew of a local plant that grows in tall, mostly straight shoots. I harvested some decades ago, first for making arrow shafts for obsidian arrowheads I’d made and later for the 43 frames I needed for building an Aleut baidarka. I didn’t know back then what species the plant was and only recently had an arborist identify it as beaked hazel by a leaf I brought to her nursery. I looked it up on the web and learned the ways I’d used the shoots have been traditional uses: “Twisted twigs were used to tie things. Stems were used for weaving baskets and fish traps. Straight stems were used for arrows.” In the British Isles, another species, common hazel, was used for making the oversized baskets that are coracles.
The beaked hazel in the woods around here grows on south-facing hillsides. Each cluster had new growth, mature shoots suitable for harvesting, and leafless standing dead shoots. For the coracle I cut shoots that were between 1/2″ and 7/8″ at the base. A ratchet pruner was the only tool I needed for the harvest. The pruner was also the only tool I really needed to build a coracle.
This project is not yet finished, but I’m already scanning Google Earth for nearby ponds and creeks where I can take my coracle, the smallest of small boats, to see what it can teach me about its ancient ancestors and the not-quite-as-old version of myself that I’ve become.