In history, like today, trade, transport and fishing were vital to people’s existence, and they required boats to do these activities. One type of boat is the skin boat. A boat made from a wooden or bone frame covered in skin. Today, these skin boats are still used for recreation using calico or fabric coated in tar or waterproof sealant instead of skin.
There are different types of skin boats used throughout the world including the Bull Boat, Coracle, Currach, Kayak and Umiak. Each boat had a different shape and was built by people using the resources that they had available to them so they could fish, navigate and transport themselves and goods around.
A skin boat is an important historical watercraft that is worth investigating and knowing a little about to see just how people traversed over water in the past and now as well. Here is a brief description of some of the skin boats in use.
A round boat made of willow and covered in skin, traditionally buffalo hide. This type of boat was found in America and is very closely related to the coracle found in Wales, England and Ireland. The Mandan, Sioux and other Native American peoples would use this boat for transport and gathering resources to move across rivers. They used a single paddle to move over the water.
A small round boat made of willow or bendable wood and traditionally covered in hide. Coracles are found in Wales as well as other more distant countries including India were they were used for river transport.
The welsh coracle is built for one person for fishing in rivers. Welsh coracles have been around for thousands of years, and their popularity underwent a resurgence in Victorian England to use for fishing as a leisure hobby. A person sits in the boat and moves across the water with a single paddle. Today some enthusiasts build their own coracle using calico covered in waterproofing tar or sealant instead of hide.
In India, they also used coracles for fishing and larger ones to transport many people over rivers. As an example, the coracle is used to carry people across the river Kaveri. A larger coracle can transport entire families across the river, and the basket design differs from that of the singular smaller coracle.
A long wooden boat covered in hide. Today it is covered in calico coated in tar and is still used for recreation, racing and water transport in Ireland. As an example, they have currach racing to see who can row the fastest. The Currach is rowed using oars, and for longer distance sea-going had sails to help propel the vessel.
A record of a sea-going currach is the voyage of St Brendan who is believed to have sailed in a Currach style skin boat from Ireland to the Americas. However, whether St Brendan actually reached America has been debated by many people and is an interesting thought.
There are different types of kayaks. The skin made kayak from Greenland and Alaska was used for by the Inuit to hunt fish and larger sea life. A kayak was designed for one person, and the frame was built from wood or bone and covered in seal or walrus skin. Due to the lack of wood available the Inuit used what resources they had available and had extensive sea knowledge. Today people construct skin kayaks but use a waterproofed material covering.
An Umiak like the kayak was a traditional Inuit vessel constructed of wood or whalebone for the frame and covered in seal or walrus skin for the outer layer. However, an Umiak was an open longer boat and could transport more than one person depending on its size. It was used for seagoing and longer distance travel and could carry the entire family to transport them to new sites or for hunting. The Inuit used paddles to move the Umiak across the sea.
These brief descriptions of skin boats are just the start of information and there are many books and resources written about skin boats for you to explore further.
Some Further Book Readings
Johnstone, P 2013, The sea craft of prehistory, Routledge.
McGrail, S 1981, The ships rafts, boats and ships: From Prehistoric Times to the Medieval Era, National Maritime Museum, London.
Paine, L 2013, The sea and civilization: a maritime history of the world, Atlantic Books, London.