May / June 2019

The New World Coracle

Improvisation with willow

The New World Coracle is made with improvisation and creativity, inspired by ancient skin-on-frame boats made of affordable, readily available, and “found” materials. Roger McKee, a teacher at WoodenBoat School who first learned these methods from the author and has since helped students build 100 skin-on-frame boats, paddles a New World Coracle here.

The Celtic coracles of the British Isles are round or oblong-shaped skin-covered boats. In their simplest form, they are propelled with a paddle and meant for light inshore work. The Irish called all of their skinboats currachs; coracles were called river currachs, and they evolved into the oar-propelled currach by increasing their length, adding tholepins for oars, and finishing the sterns with transoms. Today, we are most familiar with currachs built with fine bows and two or more rowing positions. Some of these craft, however, were built with round bows, so one could either to sit on a thwart and row or kneel in the bow and pull the craft through the water with a paddle, using a draw stroke.

I recently imagined a new type of coracle, which I call the New World Coracle, as a one-person workboat that would retain its roundness forward and aft. The boat is 8' long and has a 44" beam. The shape I ended up with is surprisingly similar to, though much smaller than, the small tugboats of the early 20th century. As dissimilar in size, propulsion, and function as these two types are, they are both highly maneuverable workboats with no sharp edges.

The seed of the New World Coracle was planted when I visited a baidarka-building class at WoodenBoat School in 1998. The lashings connecting the stringers to the ribs fascinated me, and I thought it was a shame that the decking would hide most of the visual rhythms created by this repetitive weaving. I decided to try lashing together a boat of my own, a double-paddle canoe. The process proved to be relaxing, and the resulting boat structurally sound, simple, and pleasing to the eye.

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