Friday, 15 December 2006


The coracle is probably one of the most ancient and widely used vessels around. Although it may not have the grace, manoeuvrability and speed of the canoe, it is very quick and easy to build. Where I come from a small coracle is much more useful than a canoe. The place is hilly, with lots of small shallow streams and small to medium sized lakes. Using a canoe outside the main valleys would involve a lot of portaging. A coracle on the other hand could easily be carried around from lake to lake and you would still be able to carry your basic survival and fishing gear at the same time.

Being a purist, there is no other road for me than using stone age tools only. To accomplish that I found that the Welsh coracles were too complicated without adding a lot of work to it. As one of the great advantages with the coracle is the simplicity I decided to settle for an Irish type called the “Boyne currach”, with one modification: Making a seat seat would involve a lot of chopping with a stone axe or a long time searching for a suitable, wind broken tree. Because I left out that detail, it ended up resembling the Native American bull boat in that manner.

The construction begins with putting an equal number of thumb-thick saplings in the ground, opposite of each other on two of the sides. For easier penetration of the ground it is a big advantage if the saplings have already been broken to a point while harvesting. After all of them has been placed in the way they are supposed to, all of them are bent over into the hole of the sapling stuck on the opposite side, creating a number of arches. Since it is desirable to maintain a reasonable stability to the coracle, you need to weigh down these arches to flatten the bottom.

The same process is repeated on the other two sides, but here it will be a little more messy, since the saplings has to be stuck underneath afterwards. Now you are probably thinking: Why weigh down the arches before making the second ones? Actually, I have tried both. I finished a frame that became far too big for the hide I managed to obtain. On that one I made all the arches before weighing it down. It worked, but it was quite a puzzle to manage all of those rods at the same time. If you weigh down from one side first, you can just press the next ones underneath the first ones and get the correct depth at once. On tip when making the frame: The longer between the rods, the more likely that the frame will lose it's shape later. The corners are especially important in that respect.

After the frame is weighed down and the depth is approximately the same all around (and even if it isn't, that can be adjusted in the end) you can start weaving. Since the frame consists of an equal number of rods, you need to weave in layers upwards instead of a continuous weave. Use smaller saplings than on the frame and substantial overlap when adding a new sapling. The further up the frame you weave, the less likely it is that the frame will loose it's shape when you take the frame out of the ground.

The first frame I made I let dry for about a month in the ground. When I pulled it up it kept shape reasonably well, but scraping on the bark revealed that it was still quite green. The second one I started and finished in the same day and it spread out quite badly. So instead of having steep sides, it resembled a river Severn bowl coracle in shape. Nothing wrong with that really, except a loss of stability. Next time I will build the frame months in advance, in dry and sandy soil so the frame will stay exactly the same when I pull it out.

Anyway, after you have finished the frame, pull it out and break off the ends of the rods that has been stuck in the ground. The only thing that is left then is to attach the skin.

The elk (moose) skin I got from a local slaughterhouse. No one uses the skins any more, so I got it for free. To make the coracle as light as possible, the hide was soaked and the hairs removed. After having measured the a proper fit on the frame I cut the hide with a freshly made flint flake. Here is a couple of lessons to be learned. Use a flake with a long working edge, otherwise it takes A LOT of time. Also, the hide is very thick, so the edge dulls quickly. Make a new one as soon as it starts to dull, a sharp flake is a pleasure and the used flakes can be remade into arrow points or whatever.

Finally you need to cut some long strips of the leftover hide pieces to tie it to the frame. Make a hole at least for every rod that stuck in the ground and tighten it down over the weave and behind the arch. Hard to explain, it is better to have a look on the picture. There was a bullet hole in the skin. To remedy that problem I simply stuck a small, dry piece of wood into it. When the hide dried up it kept tight in the hole. The photos are of the drying coracle in the tree and the dried coracle.

Testing the coracle was somewhat scary. The ice was starting to freeze over the pond I planned to test it on. Because of that I had to choose a spot where it was deeper close to shore. Hardly an ideal spot to practise using this craft. Despite being a little low and unstable, consequences of the frame not keeping it's shape perfectly after pulling it out of the ground, it seemed to handle well. I didn't have a paddle yet, so I don' really know though. But I got to experience that it requires a lot of effort in the way of keeping it stable. To remedy the drawback with instability and making it usable for crossing bigger lakes, further experimentation with temporarily building it into a very simple raft will be carried out. But as pointed out earlier, making the coracle a little bigger, and making the bottom totally flat would make it more stable in the first place.