Of time travel and coracles

Time-travel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Shortly before I left, I heard a mention on the radio about the effects of jet lag on memory — it sounds worse than marijuana by far. I heeded the advice to expose myself to plenty of sunshine, though (I was fortunate that my visit to Wales and England coincided with an unusually sunny period) and managed to reset my body clock fairly quickly. What I didn’t get used to was the longer day. I would wake up when the blackbirds started singing at dawn and discover that it was only 4:30 in the morning.

Traveling home, of course, I got back the time I lost on the flight over. It was just about the longest morning of my life, starting at midnight when I was en route on the express train from London to the Birmingham airport, continuing for many hours at the airport lounge (I didn’t bother getting a motel room), and then on the flight itself, which left at 9:00, lasted for seven and a half hours, and arrived at noon. I had a window seat at the very back of the plane, and spent much of the time gazing at the tops of clouds from 35,000 feet in a state of mild stupefaction, the combined effect of sleep deprivation, a recently contracted head cold, and the sheer wonder of it all.

The plane was a Boeing 767 and bucked and heaved a lot more than I remembered from my previous intercontinental flights on 747s, and this combined with the wave-like tops of the clouds made it feel almost like a sea voyage. From time to time I’d switch on the screen in the back of the seat in front of me to check our position and verify that we were, in fact, hurtling along at 500 miles per hour. I thought back to my very first day in Wales, when I got a chance to ride in a small, flat-bottomed boat known as a coracle, a version of which the Irish St. Brendan supposedly crossed the North Atlantic in. Thousands of newly hatched mayflies were rising off the river as we took turns trying to pilot the rudderless, slow-going craft against the current.

View on YouTube

The boat had just been made two days before by John and Cathryn Warren, the next-door neighbors to my hosts in Wales, Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Peter Wakelin (that’s Peter in the coracle after me; Clive’s voice is in the soundtrack, and he did the filming while I took a turn in the thing). I had simply happened to mention that a good friend of mine in the States was crazy about coracles, and asked if they knew where I might see one.

Somehow the unreality of flying across the Atlantic in a few hours was balanced by the unreality of having my desire to see a coracle instantly granted, sitting in it and finding myself unable to go anywhere very quickly except in circles. In fact, at that moment, there was nowhere I particularly wanted to go. Though the ancient ocean-going coracles did probably have rudders (and according to The Voyage of St. Brendan, could be fitted with a sail), their relative unsteerability constituted part of their attraction to Celtic monks, for whom the ideal form of travel involved surrendering to the will of God and going wherever the winds and currents took them. Some of the more God-besotted ones set off without even an oar. I could see their point. Almost everything — trees, wildflowers, birdsong — was new and miraculous to me, and I wanted nothing more than to stop and soak it in.


UPDATE (5/19): I’m honored to report that this post has spawned not one, but two responses from my friend Kristin Berkey-Abbott. Check out “Coracles and Communication,” which includes a poem called “Coracle of Prayer,” at her personal blog, and “Coracles and Currents” at Liberation Theology Lutheran.

38 Replies to “Of time travel and coracles”

  1. That is some amazing and novel paddling that she demonstrated there! I am impressed by the level of control – even while going upstream!!

  2. Excellent footage of messing about in a coracle. The beauty of the river is perfectly offset by the awkwardness of the humans. Now I want a turn!
    Great stuff Dave and great to meet you at Clive’s celebrations.

  3. Hi, Dave! I completed my transatlantic time travel yesterday. You’ve described the process/feelings perfectly. Love the little coracle video… a wonderful reminder of how travel stretches the edges of our personal envelopes. Great to meet you there; let’s keep in touch…

    1. It is regretable — not least because your own post on the topic would’ve sparkled with rare words like “widdershins,” if not indeed “umbrageousness,” which probably belong in a post about coracles.

      1. So how did Auden not fit a coracle into the Lake section of Bucolics?

        Sly Foreign Ministers should always meet beside one,/For, whether they walk widdershins or deasil,/The path will yoke their shoulders to one liquid centre/Like two old donkeys pumping as they plod

        1. Ha!
          By riverbank of umbrageousness
          The coracle turned diasil
          The poet paddled widdershins
          The journey was fantastical.

          (Diasil’s a new one for me. I shall make sure to astound and impress with it as often as possible.)

  4. Great video. Enjoyed that very much. I gave just the paddle to go with that coracle – an unusually long ottertail that can ferry a canoe so well that I’ll bet it would make that coracle fly along! I’m thinking it would be fun to build a coracle to play around down in Round Hill Brook next to my house. However, if one got swept downstream it would be bad news – into the Annapolis River and on out into the Bay of Fundy! Looks like you had a wonderful time in Wales.

    1. I did indeed. And I can easily picture you rustling up some willow branches and fashioning a dandy coracle after just a few perusals of directions on the internet — go for it, I say!

  5. Fabulous footage, Dave! A coracle as metaphor for…well, the mind boggles. I love the bit about mentioning this crazy thing, and having your wish instantly granted. Maybe I will have to try my hand at a poem too.

    1. I don’t know if it will be of any help in your poem, but there’s a Welsh saying, according to the Internet: “A man’s burden is his coracle.” The traditional hide-covered coracle would’ve been quite a bit heavier, but was still designed to be transportable by one person in the manner in which Cathryn and John carried theirs. So I guess by synechdoche it came to suggest any kind of individual burden.

  6. Grinning broadly here, Portland, Oregon, 11:21 a.m., with glints from the TriMet Division Street bus running over my face and hands. Life doesn’t get less odd, over time.

  7. Damn fine sheep that. The revolutionary poet adrift was good too. How on *earth* did she/they do that upstream with a single paddle in the front of the direction of travel? The physics must be interesting.

    1. There’s a pulling motion that’s hard to perceive, I think. Interestingly, Peter arrived too late to witness Cathryn’s demonstration, but was able to more or less figure it out on his own. In my case, in addition to being generally klutzy and inept, I was fixated on trying to reproduce the motion of her paddling.

  8. I can’t recall the name of the stroke, but there is a similar stroke used in flatwater canoeing. Basically, you are making a figure 8 with the tip of the paddle under the surface of the water. To get maximum pulling power, the side to side angle of the blade under the water should change so that the blade is always drawing an arc shape under the surface of the water. Depending on the length of the paddle and blade, the strength of a paddler and the lightness of the craft, that stroke can be very powerful and effectively used to pull a canoe in the direction of the paddle. I use it a lot when going into reed beds to investigate something then using that stroke to pull the canoe backwards where paddling out the side would just result in getting tangled in the reeds. It is also good for moving a canoe sideways to pull up parallel to another canoe or to a dock, or to hold a very still position in midstream when the current is strong – something I frequently have to do when doing stream survey work. Seeing that stroke used with the coracle was one of those a-ha moments as I had always wondered how they were paddled. That stroke would definitely work well to pull the craft toward the paddle.

    1. Hi Cathryn! Thanks for the unique experience, and I hope to take advantage of your invitation to try it again sometime. My apologies for misspelling your name (now corrected) — it’s all Clive’s fault.

  9. No centerboard, daggerboard, or keel of any kind. I’d spend my entire time foundering on every lee shore.

    But it looks like so much fun. Particularly that sequence of Cathryn walking with it on her shoulders.

    1. Yeah, too bad I put in a cut before she finished her sentence about what she thought she resembled. (I interrupted with some idiotic remark which would’ve marred the video. I should just shut up when I know I’m shooting documentary footage.)

  10. You’re back! and with such wonderful treasures. The video is marvelous – it’s one of those entrancing sights that makes me want to DO THAT!

    I’ve not heard of a coracle, but it does look rather like the boat the owl and the pussycat set off in! A quite literary boat, don’t you think?

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