Perhaps, though, a traditional Welsh coracle could be counted a more practical first-timer's project than a whole ark. With a history that goes back to somewhere close to The Flood, and at some three forearm lengths overall, (thus 100 times smaller than the ark's 300 cubits), a coracle has just enough room for one person and, perhaps, a pair of gaff- poached salmon.
Tim Wade runs three-day coracle- building courses on the river Wye in the Welsh Borders. A woodland products guru - chair-bodging, pole lathe- turning and basket-weaving are amongst his other courses - Tim and his past pupils have produced a flotilla of close on a thousand traditional wood-framed and fabric- skinned boats in the last decade. He described the boats as "basically, overgrown baskets" as we, seven coursees, three women and four men, contemplated the stacks of green ash laths waiting to be soaked, bent and woven into tight little hemispheres. By pre-cutting the strips for the ribs and stringers, and through simplifying traditional coracle-wrighting, Tim can guarantee that everyone, however heavy-handed, will have built and test-paddled their own craft by the end of the course, on Sunday afternoon.
In the late afternoon, lulled by the chatter of small birds and the crying of distant buzzards, we slapped brush-loads of thick, black bitumen paint onto the white calico domes. As the skins dried in the evening sun, the wrinkles and baggy slack began to take up. And by the time we arrived back at the woods on Sunday morning, the coracles had become organic entities, tightened into sleek, rotund sea-creatures. Piled up against each other, ready to be loaded on to roof-racks and into boots for the trip down to the Wye, they looked like portly turtles.
At Tim's house, a remote fishing lodge on the upper reaches of the river, the coracles were carried down to the water's edge. Trust in our new craft varied. The test of confidence lay in what each coracler felt it prudent to dress in before stepping aboard his or her boat. So while Tim was whisking around in tight circles in his own, go-faster striped coracle, his pupils were still pulling on old jeans, swimming costumes or wetsuits. One by one we lowered ourselves into the bobbing works of art, and drifted out into the current.
The double-handed, "stirring a pudding", paddle-stroke over the bow of the boat was easy to master. Suddenly we had the freedom of the river, slipping like shadows over the tresses of pondweed and glittering trout. We organised races, and spurred by overweening confidence, tested the crafts' stability by standing on the seats and swaying until tipped into the cold water.
Tim, who also constructed the coracles used in the film Braveheart, was a real "skin boat" enthusiast. "People have crossed the Channel in coracles, you can shoot rapids in them, and there are still a few fishermen using them for netting salmon on Welsh rivers," he told us, as we lingered over a huge alfresco lunch. In the workshop, he was overseeing not only the learner boat-builders, but also his two Slovak apprentices who were putting together a two-thirds scale craft for Pauline Hill's two children, Buster and Holly. The very smallness and simplicity of the boats gave them a universal appeal, especially, it seemed, in mini-everything crazed world of Japan. "I made a film on making coracles that was shown through one summer in Tokyo," Tim recounted, "and suddenly I got all these orders from the Far East; it was more expensive making the shipping crates than the boats themselves."
The evening was spent at the Red Lion Inn, a good-food local, well used to teams of hungry, thirsty and stiff-fingered tyro shipwrights. The next morning we regrouped around the coracles-to-be in the September sun. Seats were screwed on to the frames, and hoops of ash fixed on as gunwales. By lunchtime, the skeletons were ready for their skins. What once might have been a real cow's hide, was now calico, stretched and teased over the ribs and stitched into place. In practise, though, the course was about co-operation, with people lending each other a bit of "grunt" to pull a rim strake into place, or an extra hand to hold a tangle of bits together to be "clinched" with bent- over nails.
For the first day, the workshop - a huge open-sided, wood-roofed "umbrella" built around a living tree - resounded to rasping, hammering, muscular grunts and the occasional sharp "crack" followed by muttered oaths. When frustration at snapped ribs, ("It's alright - easy to fix that," soothed Tim), grew too intense there were stress-busting breaks around the open fire that recycled those same broken bits of wood. Mugs of smoky tea and plates of cream-cakes gave us a chance to chat and so discover why we were all on the course. For myself, I had once built a crude coracle from hazel sticks bound together with string and covered in an old tent fly-sheet; it had worked but I felt I still had plenty to learn. Cathy Amor's husband had bought her the course as a birthday present in what looked like turning into an own goal: "I want to build a coracle because you can only fit one person in it - I can head off on the river in perfect peace and quiet, and Pete can look after the children."
Stephen Bray, who saw a coracle as an aquatic equivalent to his mountain- bike, planned to paddle on the Thames near his Chiswick home and "maybe at Henley next year". David Marlow was a kosher food inspector who had signed up for the course as a bit of a challenge. Kaye Little liked the idea of building a whole boat by hand and it being small enough to carry over the hills to remote rivers and lakes.
In their mini-coracle, Buster and Holly were following in Pauline's wake like a pair of cygnets. David set off on a sedate but determined trajectory towards the horizon. And Cathy, paddling her new craft back and forth across the brisk current, was thrilled with her boat-building success. "Oh, it's lovely - my own private coracle," she sighed, "I can't wait to set off in it on a long trip, just me, a book and some sandwiches."
In the latter part of this plan she was, of course, following God's final instructions to Noah: "For your part provide yourself with eatables of all kinds and lay in a store of them, to serve as food for yourself."
BUILDING A CORACLE
DO IT YOURSELF
The next coracle-building course will take place from 20-22 August 1999. It costs pounds 145, including the coracle which you can take away at the end. For more information on coracle-building and other woodland courses, contact Tim Wade at The Woodland Skills Centre, The Church Hall, Llanafan Fawr, Builth Wells, Powys LD2 3PN (tel: 01597 860469; e-mail: email@example.com).