Across the Atlantic in a Leather Boat
☛ select leathery-excerpts from The Brendan Voyage 


Chapter 2 - The Idea

..."Saint Brendan is said to have built his boat from leather tanned in oak bark," I told these experts. "Do you think this is right, and would it have survived an ocean crossing?"

"Oak-bark-tanned leather is certainly authentic," said Dr. Sykes. "The normal way of tanning leather in western Europe right up to this century was some form of vegetable tannage, usually oak bark if it was available, and taking as long as twelve months to tan fully."

"At Richardson's we still do a vegetable tannage," added Carl Postles, "but not in oak bark any longer. It's too difficult to get and it takes too long."

"What about dressing the leather? asked Harold. "I sounds to me as if the currying or dressing of the leather hull is going to be just as important as the leather itself."

"The Navigatio merely says that the monks rubbed the skins with a grease or fat before they launched their leather boat," I told him. "The Latin word that's employed for grease doesn't define what sort of fat it was. But the text does add that Saint Brendan took along a spare supply of this fat to dress the leather during the voyage."

"Sounds very sensible," ented Harold. Turning to Dr. Sykes he asked, "What sort of fats would they have had, Bob?"

"Tallow, or sheep's fat, beeswax, perhaps cod oil, and for waterproofing ...," and here Dr. Sykes paused, "possibly the grease from sheep's wool. It's virtually raw lanolin, and has been known since Pliny's time; people have used it for waterproofing shoes right up to recent times."

For about an hour we talked the problem over, and finally agreed that Carl and Harold would send to Dr. Sykes samples of all the suitable sorts of leather they had in their tanneries. Dr. Sykes would then test these samples at his laboratories. There they would be soaked in sea water, rolled and dried, flexed and stretched, measured and weighed, to see what happened.

"What about oak-bark leather?" I demanded. "We must have some of that."

"Of course," agreed Dr. Sykes, "but it's very rare nowadays. In fact, I know only two, perhaps three tanneries who make oak-bark leather. There's one in particular down in Cornwall in the West Country, a very, very old-fashioned place, almost a farm really. They supplied genuine oak-bark leather to the British Museum when the museum was restoring a leather shield from the Sutton Hoo burial ship. I'll ask them to send up some of their leather, and we'll test it in with the other samples."

So began a delightful period of work. The British leather industry took the Brendan project to heart, and what splendid people the leathermakers turned out to be. It was a close-knit industry in which everyone seemed to know everyone else in friendly rivalry, but with a shared appreciation of leather. While Dr. Sykes and his technicians exposed various leather samples to every test they could devise, I visited tanneries, saddlemakers, and luggagemakers who still worked with leather. At the Richardson's tannery in Derby I found that they even made drinking tankards out of leather, and I noticed small scraps of leather floating in jam jars and saucers of water on several windowsills. "What on earth are those?" I asked Carl.

"Oh, the tannery workmen have heard about your crazy Saint Brendan idea and everyone has been testing pieces of leather to see whether they float."

"And do they?" I asked.

"Not for longer than four days," he grinned. "You are going to need a life raft."

Then one afternoon, after ten weeks of tests at the laboratories, I had a momentous telephone call from Dr. Sykes.

"I think we've identified your hull leather," he said. "You were right. Oak-bark leather is the best."

"How do you know?"

"We've done every test we can manage in the time available, including putting the samples on a machine designed to test leather-shoe soles. This machine rolls the sample back and forth on a mesh kept flooded with water, like a foot walking on a wet road, and we can test how much water penetrates the leather."

"What happened?" I asked.

"As supplied, the oak-bark leather wasn't as good as the others. In fact several of the other leathers were much better. But after dressing with grease and extensive testing, all the other leathers began to fail; many became waterlogged, rather like wet dishcloths. But the oak-bark samples scarcely changed at all. In the end the oak-bark leather was actually two to three times more resistant to water than any other sample. If you still want to make that leather boat, then you should use oak-bark leather."

Bell Croggon of Josiah Croggon and Son Ltd., the oak-bark tanners from Cornwall, were very conservative oak-bark tanners. "They've been making oak-bark leather in the same manner and in the same place for nearly three centuries. People have been advising them to change to some more modern methods. But they won't. I don't know what they'll say to your idea of a leather boat, and it is up to you to persuade them to let you have the leather."

When I explained to Bill Croggon that I wanted enough oxhides tanned in oak bark to cover a medieval boat, he looks thoughtful. "I'll have to talk it over with my brother," he said. "And you must realize that it takes a very long time to make oak-bark leather. Every single piece is nearly a year in preparation and we may not have it ready in time."

I went down to the Croggons' tannery in the little Cornish town of Grampound and met the Croggon family themselves, grandmother, sons and grandsons, a whole clutch of Croggons, helpful, hospitable, and soon as excited about the Brendan Voyage as I was. They took me around the tannery, starting with the lime-soaking pits where the animal hides were stripped of their hair. There I was astonished to see one workman actually scraping the surface hair from an oxhide by hand. He was using a double-handed scraper, and as he leaned over the "beam" or block he looked exactly like a woodcut illustration of a leather-worker printed four hundred years ago. We walked across a field, past a string of ducks, and went up to the tanning pits, row upon row of tanks dug into the ground and filled with a rich liquid made of ground-up oak bark and water, which look like thick beer with a creamy froth and smelled sickly sweet. In this "oak-bark liquor" lay the oxhides, slowly absorbing the tannin in the mixture, which entered the skins and formed a tight bond with the skin fibres, turning a perishable oxhide into some of the finest leather known. "It's a technique that can't have changed much since Saint Brendan's day," commented John Croggon. "It takes good oxhides, the right oak-bark mixture, and lots of time. Of course, many people say that today it's very old-fashioned. But some of the very best handmade shoes are soled with our leather, and orthopaedic hospitals specify oak-bark leather for certain uses because it is so pure that it is less likely to cause skin irritations."

"Do you think you could find enough medieval-sized oxhides for me? The cattle in Saint Brendan's day were smaller than now. I need small-sized hides about a quarter of an inch thick to be authentic, maybe as many as fifty of them."

"You are in luck. We've got some hides just like that in the tanning pits now. Of course you'll have to have the best. You're trusting your life to them."

Much later I discovered just how unstintingly the Croggon brothers worked on my behalf. They and their men personally sorted through oxhide after oxhide, hauling them out, wet and dripping, from the tanning pits. They examined each hide minutely for flaws, for barbed-wire scratches, for the holes left by warble flies, for cuts made by a careless skinning knife. I must have taken days of back-breaking work, and without ever a word to me. In the end, the Croggons provided 57 of the finest oak-bark-tanned oxhides I could have wanted. When a professional saddlemaker saw them stacked together, he gave a low whistle of appreciation. "I've never seen leather like it," he said. "I've been told about it, but never expected to see so much of it in one place. We seldom see it in our workshops."

"That's because it's all been earmarked for a leather boat," I teased him.


From the Croggons' tannery the hides went up to Harold Birkin to be greased. Tests at the research laboratories had revealed that wool grease was in fact the best dressing for the leather, and through a friend in the wool business I had been given the name of a wool mill in Yorkshire that might help. I telephoned one of the directors. "I wonder if you could supply me with some wool grease."

"Yes, of course. How much do you want?"

"About three-quarters of a ton, please."

There was a stunned silence.

The only trouble with the combination of wool grease and leather was the appalling smell. My wife complained that the leather smelled like blocked drains, and this smell now competed with the odour of rancid fat. Even the workers in Harold Birkin's tannery - and tanneries are notoriously pungent places - complained about the stench of the grease. They claimed that they could smell the stuff half a mile away from the factory gates.

Under Harold's close attention, each evil-smelling oxhide was folded down the backbone and suspended in a tub of hot wool grease. Then it was withdrawn from the tub, allowed to drain, and put flat on the ground. Now molten wool grease was literally poured onto it, another hide placed on top, and the process of pouring hot grease repeated for all fifty-seven oxhides until there was a huge, sticky, multilayer sandwich of leather gently absorbing the vital wool grease.

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Chaper 3 - Building

With ... fifty-seven slippery, greasy oxhides pungent with wool grease, I set out for Ireland. It was time to start building the boat.

"What have you got there?" asked the Irish customs officer as he slid back the van door with a rumble, poked in his head, and withdrew it again very sharply, wrinkling his nose at the eye-watering smell.

"Oxhides," I replied. "They're for a boat I'm building and hope to sail to America."

"Oh, they are for export, then. Thank heavens for that. We won't want that sort of sell around too long." He laughed as he banged the door shut. I was on my way to the boatyard in County Cork where the boat would be built, and an important new stage in the Brendan project was about to begin.

I had been busily experimenting with the leather thongs to lash the frame together. Dr. Sykes at the Leather Research Laboratories had advised that the best leather for this job was made by "tawing," a process using alum, known since Roman days. Carl Postles at the Derby tannery had sent over two big bales of these thongs, and I began a few practical test with them by tying together wood laths and hanging them in the tide water of the estuary. I quickly learned that it was vital to soak the thongs in sea water beforehand, stretch them, and then tie the lashings while the leather was still wet. Otherwise the thongs did not grip. Unfortunately, tying knots in slippery wet thongs was like joining two snakes. The thongs simply slid apart. One hilarious Sunday morning I was testing a new type of knot in the garage, and had tied the thong to a ring bolt in the floor. I was heaving away with all my might, when suddenly the thong slipped, and I went hurtling backward out of the garage door onto the pavement. There I tripped and fell flat on my back waving a wet thong in the air, right in the path of the village congregation on its way back from church. "That's what education does for you," someone muttered.

In the end I found a knot that seemed to hold effectively, though it required much interlacing and twisting, and in a curious way it looked very like the braided patterns found in Irish manuscript illustrations.

Now came the most crucial step in the whole reconstruction. How were we to cover the wooden hull with oxhides? What should we use for thread? How did we join the hides together? What method of stitching was best? How far apart should we make each stitch hole? If we stitched too closely, the leather might rip between the stitches. On the other hand, if we stitched too widely, the leather would buckle between them and water would pour in through the joints.

The Irish National Museum in Dublin had a superb collection of early Christian artifacts ... (there was) an early Christian book satchel made to carry a Bible. To stitch this satchel, the medieval craftsman, who may well have been a monk himself, had worked with his hand inside the satchel, running his needle down the length of the leather so that the stitches actually stayed within the thickness of the skin and were totally invisible. ...few modern leather-workers would have cared to try to duplicate this meticulous craftsmanship.

We numbered every oxhide and heaped them under piles of weights to flatten out the wrinkles as much as possible. We trimmed the hides with sharp knives, and hung them on the wooden boat frame, turning them this way and that to try to make them fit the compound curves of the hull. We warmed oxhides to try to mold them; we soaked them in water; and we beat them with great hammers to try to shape them. We tried every technique I had seen in the museum, and we tested the traditional methods of the master saddlemaker, methods with splendid-sounding names like back-stitching, two-hand stitching, blind stitching, and the furriers' stitch.

Occasionally the results were disastrous. For example, when we tried lacing the hides together with finely cut leather thong, the lacing popped apart like rotten string. "If only we could get fine thong made from horsehide; it's so much stronger," bemoaned the master saddler. Another hide we tried dipping in water that was too warm, and the leather turned brittle and lifeless. It cracked and split like a neglected shoe, and we looked at one another, wondering what would happen if we made a similar mistake but failed to spot it before we put to sea in the Atlantic. At last we worked out a technique that seemed simple and effective. We overlapped the oxhides by a margin of one to two inches, and then stitched a strong double line of thread along the joint. It took care and patience, but the workmanship was at least within our capabilities, and the joints showed a crude strength. Just before he left to go back to the firm who had kindly loaned him to us, the master saddler looked at the long, gleaming, naked frame of the boat, then at the stack of hides lying waiting, and then at George and me. "That's probably the biggest single leather-working job of the century," he said. "If you get it done, you'll be able to teach others something about stitching.”

The men trained in heavy leather work were a vanishing breed.  Fifty years ago most villages in Ireland had a man who repaired bridles and made harnesses; most country towns might have had a saddler.  But these craftsmen had all but vanished, gone into limbo with the farm animals.  Only a handful remained; there were probably less than a hundred trained saddlers still at work in the entire British Isles.  Such men were eagerly sought after.  They made saddles for the export market and were kept permanently busy.  

halfmoon knife

...I met the deft craftsmen who still handled tools that had not changed for centuries: the awls and punches, the pincers and scribers, the half-moon knives, crimpers, and edge-shavers.  The saddlers' benches smelled richly of leather and beeswax polish; and the saddlers sat in their leather aprons, bent over their work endlessly stitching away with their huge strong hands and powerful shoulder muscles, developed by years of pulling taut the double-handed thread with a snap that still made good hand-sewn leather far stronger than any machine stitch.  I learned why English saddles were considered to be the finest in the world; why Australian racing stables would wait four years for a light saddle from a top maker; and how the Shah of Iran had placed a legendary order for six sets of harness for his state coach at his coronation, every piece of harness to be made in blue leather.  I learned too that the premier firm of English saddlemakers had closed down when its owner died, and its team of saddlers and harness-makers – perhaps a dozen men – had scattered to other firms, while the Royal Warrant as Saddlers to the Queen had passed to a rival firm.  Saddlemaking was such a tightly knit world that the top men could recognize their own handiwork across the width of a room and tell you the names of most of the other craftsmen in the same line.

John O'Connell, one of the most skilled harnessmakers in the craft, had come back to Ireland, failed to find harness work in Cork, and had taken a job as a construction worker.  He lived now fifteen miles from the boatyard where we were working, and he had kept his skills in trim, occasionally mending leather shoes for friends, or school satchels for local children.  I asked him if he had still kept his leather-working tools.

"My wife complains that I never throw anything away," he said with a chuckle.  "Just wait a minute while I go upstairs and fetch them down."

He came back with a battered leather Gladstone bag and pulled open the top, and I found myself looking at as varied a collection of harnessmaker's tools as I have ever seen in my life.

"I inherited most of them from my father," John O'Connell explained.  "He was a horse-collar maker.  Of course you don't find that trade now.  I was apprenticed to him, and served my full term before I went to England."

John was experienced in making horse collars, the branch of traditional leather work closest to our heavy leather work for the boat.  Step by step, he began to train George and me and all the volunteers I recruited.  He taught us to foll flax thread, turning a single strand into a thick fourteen-strand cord.  We were started at the deep end.  Clad in leather aprons we looped and twisted the flax, rubbing it with lumps of black wax mixed with wool grease and beeswax, and rolling it on our thighs like cigarmakers.  At first we got into terrible tangles, finishing up with cats' cradles of flax that had to be thrown into the dustbin.  John O'Connell merely grinned at us over the inevitable cigarette stuck in his mouth, and started each man over again.  Gradually we picked up the knack of spinning the thread and how to break it against the twist with a casual flick of the wrist, but we never equalled John himself.  His hands moved in a blur, and he never even needed to watch the threads spinning and twisting as if by magic they rolled as neat and regularly as from a machine.  To the finish John could roll two cords for every single one that George or I turned out.

He taught us to thread the needles properly.  He demonstrated how to pierce half-an-inch thickness of leather straight and true with a quick stab of the deadly saddlemaker's awl and, before the hole was closed up, to run through the blunt needle, its tip touching the point of the awl as it was withdrawn.  Hand and eye had to match the movement exactly.  A second's delay and the advantage was lost as the leather closed around the hole.  At the start we almost abandoned hope at ever being able to copy his methods.  In four days of work we averaged a paltry six incues of stitching per day, and we knew that we had at least two miles to go.  We broke needles by the score, split and tore the threads, snapped awl blades, and pricked our fingers till they bled profusely.  Our hands were soon a mass of cuts, and we kept a large box of sticking plaster by the workbench.  Even John's hands were bleeding, but for quite a different reason.  After ten years away from the saddler's bench, his hands, despite carrying bricks, had grown soft for harness work.  When John pulled the thread tight into each stitch, he did so with a massive jerk that brought into play the enormous muscles in arm and shoulder, and the thread wrapped around his fists sliced into the soft flesh like a knife.  But John merely laughed.  "It'll soon mend," he grunted as drops of blood spattered out.  "Inside a week my hands will be back in trim, and then we'll really get going."

"Won't the cuts get infected?" I asked him.

"No, not at all.  A waxed thread never leaves a dirty cut.  In the old days if we cut ourselves with a knife on the bench, we always treated the cut with a dab of black wax.  Nobody ever had any trouble."

We began with the easier work, piecing together the oxhides that covered the central segment of the hull, joining each hide as if stitching together a quilt. Neighbors and friends came from my village to help us, and we learned that it was knack rather than brute strength that mattered in driving a good stitch. Some people had a true feeling for the work, others hadn't. Our best recruit was a mere slip of a girl with less muscular strength than anyone else, but she left a neat, firm line of stitches that joined the hides as if they had been welded together. 

Once we had mastered the back-stitch, John O'Connell took us on to the faster but more complicated two-hand stitch. Two needles were used to carry two separate threads down the line of awl holes, working from both sides of the leather. Normally a harnessmaker would have done the two-hand stitch by himself, holding the leather clamped between his knees. But our oxhides were too big, averaging four feet by three and a half feet, and so it was impossible for one man to reach both sides simultaneously. We had to have the stitchers working in pairs, poking the needles back and forth to one another through the leather. One stitcher stood on the outside and opened a hole with a stab of the awl. His partner, curled up inside the upturned boat, poked the needle out to the pinprick of light. Back came a second needle; then the partners gathered up the slack of the two threads in their fists; a grunt, and both tugged the stitch home simultaneously. The technique took patience, dexterity, and a sense of rhythm if it was to be done right. And if it was done wrong, John O'Connell was merciless. "Rip it, rip it!" he would say, and out would come his razor-sharp saddler's knife and one slash would sever an entire day's painstaking labor.

Gradually the work crept forward ... two oxhides in place, four ... six, and then suddenly we were working on the second tier of hides. John was satisfied with the quality of the work, but I was growing worried that we were falling behind schedule. If the boat was to be launched on time, I had to find more stitchers. I had already scoured the village and the neighborhood, and recruited every available housewife and friend. Then I had a brainwave. There was a technical college in London that gave a course in saddlery. Perhaps I could get a class of students to come over to help. I had never met the saddlery instructor, but I knew he had once been foreman at the Royal Warrant saddlers. I wrote him a letter and then telephoned him. 

"Hello. This is Tim Severin. I wrote to you about a medieval leather boat I'm building. Do you think there's any chance that some of your students would like to come over to help? It would be good experience for them, and I'll pay their fares to come to Ireland." 

The instructor sounded doubtful. "I've talked to my students, and they're very keen. But what would they learn? I don't want them picking up any shoddy techniques, and somebody will have to keep an eye on them." 

"I've got John O'Connell looking after the work at the boatyard," I pleaded. 

"What! John O'Connell the harnessmaker?" He sounded impressed. "Well then, you've got the best man. I'll give the students permission to join you for a week." 

So nine students came across to Ireland, tumbling one morning from a battered van at the Crosshaven Boatyard to the amazement of the shipwrights. The students brought with them their transistor radios, sleeping bags, and a strange assortment of old clothes ranging from moleskin overcoats to long woollen scarves and striped sports shirts. They chattered and joked ... and they worked superbly. At its peak the boat had no less than nine students, eight volunteers, George's sister Ellen, George, myself, and John working on it; and if you peered underneath, there was our mascot George's dog, Biscuit, who sat all day under the upturned hull, licking the faces of the "inside" stitchers and begging lunchtime sandwiches. In the evenings we drove back, completely worn out, to the village, where kindly neighbors had cooked up vast pots of stew and left them on my doorstep. 

"Good Lord, whew did that lot come from?" asked a student as Ellen Molony staggered in with a four-gallon tub of Irish stew. 

"Leprechauns!" was the instant reply. 

The students set the timetable right, and on the day they were due to go back to college, their spokesman took me to one side. 

"We are enjoying ourselves so much," he said, "that we would like to stay on two extra days. Would you mind?" 

"Of course not," I answered. "I would be delighted. But the agreement with your college was that you would only be here for a week." 

"Oh, that's all right," he said gaily. "We'll just arrange to miss the ferry boat, and the next boat doesn't sail for two days." 

So the students blithely missed the boat, and by the time they roared off cheerily in their dented van, we had only to make and fit the bow and stern sections of the leather. We anticipated extra wear and tear in these areas, and so we doubled the thickness of the leather, and on the bow where it might run on a rock or onto sharp flotsam, we made it four layers thick, more than an inch of solid leather. 

Counterlining Needles

Only John O'Connell had the strength for this work. From his Gladstone bag he produced a pair of great heavy half-moon needles and an antiquated collarmaker's palm that was almost a museum piece. As I watched him drive the needles through the leather with his prodigious strength, I thanked our luck that we had found such a man. 

palm tool in use

Finally, the leathering was done. We had used forty-nine hides to cover the frame. Several hides had been damaged in our first attempt to sew them, but we still had an ample supply of extra material if the boat needed repairs during the forthcoming trials or the voyage itself. George and I crawled for the last time under the upturned boat. With rope cut from oxhide, we pulled down the hanging edge of the skin and fastened it upward to the lower gunwale. Pat Lake the shipwright and Murph, his second-in-command, climbed onto the upturned hull to fit on a shallow skid of oak to protect the leather when we should run the boat up on to a beach; and our medieval boat was manhandled the right way up. From the finest Glennon ash we fashioned masts and oars to the same pattern as the Dingle curraghs, and at last she was ready. 

St  Brendan the Navigator by CelticArt

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The Cameroonian Cornwall, UK March 2011
Camel ford and District

Ron Hicks, a former employee of Croggon’s Tannery at Grampound, described the tannery and the processing of hides. It took about a year to turn hides that came mainly from one of the local slaughterhouses into fine leather. Ron used old photographs to illustrate the process which began by soaking the washed hides in a solution of lime for two weeks to remove hairs and traces of flesh. The hides were then suspended in vats with oak bark, or ground Turkish acorns after 1889, and soaked in tannin for about a year. On final removal from the vats, the leather was passed through rollers and cod liver oil was applied.

Since the leather produced was only exposed to natural materials, it was in demand for surgical uses as it was non-irritant. Bespoke shoe makers were also supplied. The longest pieces of the hide were used to make harness, and there was also a demand for leather for repairs. Such was the demand for quality leather, that two hundred years ago, Grampound had 5 tanneries. The last surviving tannery in Cornwall, Croggon’s, ran from 1712 – 2002.


Different Coats for Different Boats

The skins with which skin-on-frame boats are covered differ considerably from place to place, and even from boat type to boat type within a geographic area.

The angyapik (umiaks) of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, just south of the Bering Strait, are covered with the hides of female walruses. Removed from the carcasses after the spring hunt, the hides are stored until the hunting season ends in June or July. Any flesh or blubber that still adheres is then scraped off, then the hide is folded up into another old skin and left in a warm place for several days or weeks. This "sours" the skin so that the hair can be scraped off easily.

Skinboat 0001 (1)

St. Lawrence Island woman splitting a framed walrus hide stretched on a vertical frame. 
In her right hand she holds a honing stone, with which she frequently touches up the blade of her ulu knife. 

The edges of the skin are split 1"-2" (2.5-5cm) deep, then holes are punched into the blubber side and the skin is hung and stretched  on a vertical frame. The skin is then split from the top down with an ulu-type knife, great care being given to maintaining equal thickness on both sides. The two halves are not separated completely: they are left attached all along the bottom edge, so that the hide can be "unfolded" to cover very nearly twice its original surface area. It is then stretched and laced onto a larger, horizontal frame and left to dry for two to four weeks, after which is is soaked for up to a week in fresh water just before it is laid over the upturned hull with the blubber and hair side facing inward. The blubber-side half of the split hide goes bow-first, it being considered better able to resist abrasion from floating ice than the hair-side half. Women, by the way, do all the hide preparation and sewing. 

Skinboat 0002

The walrus hide has been split but the two halves remain attached. (See the raised line along the center, just to the right of the center timber.)  It will dry on this stretching frame for several weeks.

Some 200 miles north, on King Island, in the Bearing Strait, the walrus hide is split completely, but only the hair side is used to cover boats. This means that twice as many hides are required. (A typical St. Lawrence Island angyapik requires at least two full hides, and often part of a third for patches to raise the sides amidships.) On Diomede Island, close by King Island, the two halves of the hide are separated completely, but both parts are often used, with the blubber-side half placed toward the bow, as on St. Lawrence. (In contrast, kayaks of the region are skinned with seal or sea lion hides, not walrus.)

Skinboat 0003

Fully-skinned angyapik of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Two full skins are sewn together amidships in a straight seam. Also visible are ridges halfway between the center and the ends, where each split hide remains attached. Note the large side panel, required to make up the full width of the hull. 

To sew the hides together, women use thread made from  whale or caribou sinew. For the main hull seams, they use a blind waterproof stitch in which the thread does not completely penetrate either of the pieces. With the two pieces overlapped by 1"-2", the needle is inserted into the side-edge of one piece then down into the underlying piece, where it takes a U-turn within the thickness of the hide before emerging just outboard of the top piece's outer edge. The same procedure is followed on the opposite side, for a double row of waterproof stitches with no holes through the hide.

Half a world and perhaps 1,000 years away is the leather-covered curragh used by early Irish Christian missionaries, as reproduced by Tim Severin in The Brendan Voyage . While it's impossible to know the real details of the boat used by St. Brendan (c.489 - c. 570 or 583), Severin conducted careful and persuasive research in attempting to recreate the type of boat that might have been used to cross the Atlantic long before the Vikings. What he concluded as the most likely covering was ox hides tanned in oak bark solution and dressed with raw sheep's-wool grease (i.e., lanolin). As these 6th-century boats were made in and for the use of monasteries, I feel we can safely assume they were built entirely by men.

Skinboat 0004C

Ox hides being installed on Tim Severin's curragh Brendan.

Severin bought his hides from one of only two or three traditional tanners remaining in the UK in the mid 1970s. He observed the process by which hides were first soaked in a lime  solution, then stripped of their hair with hand scrapers. They were then soaked for weeks in an oak-bark solution. After drying, they were dipped into a hot bath of wool grease, then laid out flat one atop another with more hot grease poured between each one. After soaking thus for weeks, the hides had taken up 30-37% grease which, I think, means that the weight of the hide increased by that amount.

The 36'-LOA Brendan required 47 hides to cover. They were sewed with hand-twisted flax cord made of 14 individual threads and rubbed through a mixture of black wax, wool grease and beeswax. Although the needles pierced straight through the seams, the thread's grease coating, and the high grease content of the hides themselves effectively sealed the needle holes against water. On the trip across the Atlantic, seepage through the hull was never a problem.

Skinboat 0005C

The finished Brendan

The differences in materials between the umiaks of Alaska and the curraghs of Ireland imposed significant differences in usage. Because the umiak skins are neither tanned nor dressed, their waterproof performance is extremely limited. They must be removed from the sea every day and allowed to dry, or they will become quickly waterlogged. This will promote rot but, long before that happens, the skins would become too weak to maintain any integrity, and they would simply fall to pieces. This being the case, the umiak/angyapik is strictly a coasting vessel. Although trips lasting several weeks might be undertaken, the crew must land each evening to dry the boat's cover.

The curragh's leather cover, on the other hand, resisted both waterlogging and rot over a period of months at sea, at least in cold waters. (The Brendan voyage took the "stepping stone" route from the British Isles to the Faroes, and thence to Iceland and Newfoundland. Severin speculated that it might not have performed so well had a more southerly route been taken.) The leather-covered curragh, then, was a true ocean-going craft, capable of extended voyages and not requiring drying-out time.


Angyakpiks/umiaks: Information and photos from The Skin Boats of Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska , by Stephen R. Braund

Curraghs: Information and photos from The Brendan Voyage , by Tim Severin

This post was inspired by a communication from Carlos Pedro Vairo, director of the Museo Maritimo de Ushuaia, Argentina, and author of The Yamana Canoe: The Marine Tradition of the Aborigines of Tierra Del Fuego .

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September 14  2014