I was determined one recent summer to build a coracle both to amuse my kids and to amuse myself. I had built one years before when I was fourteen. It was not entirely successful but it did float. The secret I learnt was all in the bulge of the thing. If, sideways on, a coracle has the aspect of half a grapefruit rather than one of those dumpy bottomed mugs, then you’re more likely to capsize. The coracle must bulge out at the waterline, or at least drop straight down before turning through a right angle to give a flat bottom to the boat.
The coracle is the traditional Celtic craft. They still ply in reduced numbers some of our western salmon rivers in Wales and Scotland. A few makers continue- usually making their craft from calico and tar, though the originals were of cow, deer or horsehide- the diminutive size of the boat determined by the size of skin available.
My coracle design is dominated by ease of manufacture and quickness of getting it onto the water. You want to get out there and hanging around knacker’s yards waiting for old skins just takes too much time. The water calls. Also, there is considerable pleasure in making anything out of everyday objects. For your coracle nip down to the local DIY store and buy a pack of plastic cable ties- the sturdy kind, some garden twine, a cheap eyelet making kit, and if they stock them, a heavyweight tarpaulin about 3 metres square. If you can’t find such a strong tarpaulin there are several suppliers on the net. You should be able to get one for under fifteen pounds. You can use any kind of tarpaulin- a three quid one will work- but the stronger it is the less careful you have to be on root infested river banks.
Next, head out to the river, motorway, bypass or nearest woods to get your sticks. Motorways with wooded sides are good places to cut sticks as no one ever stops and asks you what the hell you are doing. As long as you are a little bit hidden from the traffic you can coppice the hazels and ash trees to your heart’s content. You’ll need about twenty whippy sticks two metres long, greenwood and bendy- preferably willow but hazel or any wood that doesn’t snap when you bend it will do. Diameter of the stick about two centimetres. Thick sticks can be split.
Stick the sticks upright in the ground in a pleasing oval shape about 1.75metres by 1.5metres. Weave more sticks in and out of the uprights to a depth of a about 30cm. Then bend the sticks over having softened them up in the steam of an electric kettle (on an extension from indoors). Use cable ties (three per stick) to join the bent over sticks across the bottom of the boat. The bits that stick out around the side again soften in steam or hot water and poke down the basketweave around the sides.
Now secure the entire lower rim of the coracle with an inner and outer gunwhale, that is, a continuous strip that runs inside and outside the lip of the boat to stop it collapsing. This is made with a longer stick, steamed if necessary and held to each upright with a cable tie. Trim all sticks and ties once that is done.
Use a knife to carve away any sticking out sharp bits that might puncture the skin. Use duct tape to further soften sharp edges. Cover the coracle frame with the tarpaulin and mark roughly with a marker pen a line about 15 cm down inside the coracle when the tarpaulin is folded over. Use the eyelet kit to make secure holes every 10 cm around this line. Leave a further 10 cm free and cut away the rest. Use the garden twine to lace the tarpaulin over the frame tying it down from the eyelets to the frame.
Get a plank of wood with holes drilled either side and cable tie or U bolt it across the gunwhales (the edge of the top of the boat). This becomes the cross seat. Be careful making holes in the tarp cover and secure any made using waterproof duct tape ironed on to make it stick better.
Buy an el cheapo paddle or make one from a piece of plywood nailed to thick smooth stick (as smooth as possible otherwise blisters will appear).
Make a carrying strap of rope to hang the coracle over your shoulder. Head for the nearest water and make like an ancient Briton.