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Monday, November 23, 2015

Diversity of British Isles Coracles:

It's often said that the great diversity of small craft is a result of the extremely various uses required of boats and the extremely various environments in which they are used (along with differences in access to raw materials). I think this misses one important factor: the individuality of humanity.

In Coracles of the World, Peter Badges describes how each of the numerous types of coracle in the British Isles are native to an individual river, or even a stretch on a river, with a different type sometimes being used upstream or downstream. But surely, some of these stretches of river have very nearly the same conditions, be they in Scotland, England, Wales or Ireland, and many locales have access to the same or similar materials.

The uses to which coracles were traditionally put were also pretty consistent and of limited diversity: viz, mainly fishing with nets; angling; and the transportation of humans and cargo. This isn't to imply that angling and net-handling impose the same design requirements. But boats that are used in similar ways on similar rivers would function equally well if they were of similar designs.

I think it probable that much of the diversity in boat design is due to the impulse of individualism in so many craftsman. This impulse is often a creative or innovative one -- a desire to attempt some improvement in functionality, appearance, or ease of construction. Sometimes, though, it is probably due to a simple desire to do things differently from one's parent, employer, or neighbor; to be able to say "This is my idea/my design."

Even if the attempt at a functional improvement does not actually produce one -- even if the change just to be different makes the boat more difficult to construct or use -- the builder might continue building his boats in that manner, simply because it is his own way. And if he has a son or an apprentice or half-a-dozen customers who get accustomed to his boats, the new style might become entrenched in a small, parochial geographic zone, which the British Isles have in such abundance.

Before the days of radio and television, there were those who claimed to be able to identify the home of any Britisher to within 40 miles or so based strictly upon his speech. (I think Henry Higgins claimed as much.) No one would argue that a Cornwall dialect is objectively superior to a Fife one. (Okay, they probably do. But the argument won't hold up in court.) Coracles I think, are like that: some of the differences are simply differences, not advantages.

So let's look at some photos. The intent isn't to identify each coracle type with a specific locale: that is the point of much of Badge's book. Our objective is only to illustrate the diversity, perhaps as evidence of how the creative impulse -- along with practical issues such as river configuration, available materials, and the requirements of different uses -- produced it within the seemingly simple concept of the coracle (surely among the simplest boat types in existence) in such a limited geographic range. I've left Badge's original captions in place in the images themselves; my comments appear below them. 
coracle
The coracle of popular conception: perfectly round. (Click any image to enlarge.)

coracle
A very pleasing oval in plan view.
coracle
Sides roughly straight and parallel, one end rounded, the other mostly rounded with a slight point to it.
coracle
Pear-shaped. It starts out egg-shaped, then it's drawn in at the waist to attach the thwart.
coracle
One end dead flat; the other rounded; sides straight and parallel. This and the previous image illustrate an odd, but fairly common, characteristic of coracles: when one end is blunter than the other, it's usually the bow.
coracle
Looking now at sectional shape: some coracles have substantial tumblehome -- i.e., the bilges bulge out, and the craft narrows as it rises to the gunwales. The botttom is flat.
coracle
Another flat-bottomed coracle, but this one has no tumblehome. Its straight sides flare out.
coracle
Looking now at construction methods: this coracle has a gunwale composed of woven withies and "frames" of slender branches, doubled across the bottom.
coracle
The gunwale of this coracle is sawn lumber. The frames are nicely machined splints, fastened at every intersection with screws. The transverse and diagonal frames overlay the longitudinal ones.
coracle
The frames are narrow, riven splints. The transverse and longitudinal frames are woven over/under/over one another. Although woven-splint construction is common, this one happens to be a particularly complex example.
coracle
A very different construction method: the entire boat is woven like a basket.
coracle
A most unusual example of splint construction. The normal right-angled orientation of splints is discarded in favor of changing angles and complex curves. Note how a splint runs just below the gunwale around most of the boat, then curves down sharply to support the thwart.
coracle
The standard method of portaging a coracle: the user places a strap that passes through holes in the thwart around the shoulders. A less common method is to carry to boat inverted over one's head, with the thwart resting on one shoulder. 
coracle
Paddling differences: Two handed. Note also the bowl-shaped sections and the lattice-like structure supporting the thwart. The support structure also kept a sein net confined in the stern and prevented it from sneaking into the bow portion and interfering with the boater's feet.  
coracle
Another two-handed paddler. Compare the rough, irregular appearance of this coracle with the geometric purity of the previous one.
coracle
One-handed paddling was apparently more common historically. The man at right rests the upper part of the paddle's shaft in the crook of his elbow. The woman appears to be sculling with the paddle grasped well below the end grip, with the loom levering against the gunwale.
coracle
A large, two-person coracle for angling. (Note the "guide's" one-handed paddle grip. Most coracle angling was done in one-man boats, where a one-handed grip on the paddle allowed the rod to be managed with the other. But the one-handed method took hold as the norm in some coracle types, and was used even when two hands were available.) Net fishing was also done in both one- and two-man coracles. 

All images are from Coracles of the World by Peter Badges.

4 comments:

  1. Another fine post. I wonder if the tendency for bluntness in one end to the fore was to increase buoyancy, since the boatman's weight might naturally shift forward from time to time? As for the flare vs. tumblehome, that's interesting. If flared design predominated in an area where net-fishing was the dominant method, would flare account for the extra weight of a net? Yet flare would hamper drawing a net (if that was done -- perhaps the nets were drawn into shore). Well, as ever, a contextual analysis is in order if the form-and-function correlation-vs-causation investigation would proceed at all.

    As for individual variation on a traditional scheme, I find your comments quite apt, since tradition is not necessarily a tyrant, but often a doubtful elder, frowning, grinning, grunting whenever you change something, but sometimes approving. For this analysis, the folklorists are the experts. Folklore includes material culture, not just narratives and beliefs (ideas are communicated in things). Thye styles of things sometimes do have functions, but they may be one level more difficult to analyze than hull shape vs. fishing method (etc.) -- signalling cultural affiliation and status, for instance.

    Henry Glassie wrote a good overview of tradition and innovation in an article titled "Tradition" in the American Journal of Folklore, late 1990s or so, which might be consulted as a start.

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  2. Wade,
    Thank you for your insightful comments, especially the one concerning the blunt end being the bow.
    In discussing one-handed vs. two-handed paddling, above, I neglected to mention that the two-handed stroke is directly over the bow, with the blade drawn toward the boat during the power part of the stroke. While the one-handed method places the paddle blade to the paddler's on-side, I'm not clear if the boat is drawn in that direction (i.e., sideways), or if something like a J-stroke is used to propel the boat in the direction that the paddler faces -- i.e., at a right angle to the direction of the paddle.
    For the two-handed stroke, the paddler's weight clearly must shift toward the bow with every "catch" of the paddle, and your suggestion that the blunt bow serves to provide additional buoyancy there makes perfect sense.

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  3. I suppose a J-stroke might work, but without a long hull to resist rotating, I think the coracle would be better drawn to the side (the starboard or port side becomes the "bow of the moment" for one-handed paddling). I must ask the fellow I know in Ireland who builds and uses these things on the River Boyne.

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  4. On my Boyne skin coracle because it is slightly elongated it is possible to padle with alternate side strokes as long as they are each side of the curved bow and you sort of catch the rotation with a following stroke. Craw stroke culling with a figure of eight over the front works as does a single arm and hand paddle. Best speed is with the first method but aware of the limitations on hull speed there is no point in exhausting oneself for a tiny increase in speed'
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDuqjDq_abw

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