We Made It: Coracle Maker Malcolm Rees

The coracles of South West Wales have changed little since pre-Roman times. Julius Caesar is said to have commented on the nimbleness of these one-man fishing boats, shaped like half a walnut shell. Malcolm Rees, secretary of the Carmarthen Coracle and Netsmen's Association, is just as enthusiastic about their qualities in 2015: "Because of its shape, unlike a kayak or a canoe, the coracle can spin on its axis. It is not only nimble, but strong and stable".

Rees is one of the few still using these ancient craft to catch salmon and migrating sea trout (known locally as sewin) on the River Towy - Avon Tywi in Welsh - which runs through Carmarthen. While traditional methods are revered here, there have had to be changes in recent years. Rees explains that the Welsh Water Authority dammed the river not far from its source in 1972 to conserve winter rainfall. Further downriver, "the flow of water slowed and the level dropped so stones and shingle were exposed which had never been a problem before." The result is that traditional materials have, in some cases, been replaced by fibreglass. The shape of these modern coracles mimics that of their older counterparts but they are made from a moulded sheet of the more resilient reinforced plastic.

Rees owns five fibreglass coracles, but he still makes the traditional kind and regularly uses one on the Towy between March 1st and July 31st, the season for fishing sewin and salmon. The boat's skeleton is made of ash: "It's a very pliable wood, cut green, which can be bent into shape. Years ago, they had to select a tree that was big enough for the purpose, but small enough so that two men could handle it. Now the sawmill provides laths ready cut to 3/8th of an inch thick and an inch wide. These are placed, seven vertically, seven horizontally and two diagonally, interlocking and curved to make a frame which would once have been covered by hide. That was replaced by calico and then cotton which becomes waterproof when painted three times with bitumen." This process too has been simplified. "Years ago, they used melted tar and linseed oil. Blocks of tar were melted on a big fire and the heat was such that any brush touching the tar would melt, so a piece of wood fitted with strips of leather was used instead."

A 2 year old Malcolm Rees with his great-grandfather, William Elias, on the bank's of the River Towy.
 

The one-person seat fitted into the centre of the boat needs to be light, "the lighter the better", says Rees, "and durable, so for choice made of poplar or cedar." The average coracle is about 5 feet 4 inches long, 39 inches wide and 12 to 14 inches deep, measured from under the seat. The length can be adjusted to suit its owner, however. Rees: "If the man is tall, the boat will be made a little longer to make it easier for him to get the net over the front. A shorter man will have a squatter coracle."  Fishermen work in pairs, paddling with one hand and dragging the net   (designed so that smaller fish pass through) between them with the other. "You pull the fish into the coracle and hit it with a 'cnocer', a wooden mallet kept strapped to the seat. This is sometimes known as a 'priest' - I suppose because it gives the fish the last rites." The word 'cnocer', by the way, is an example of the special Welsh vocabulary developed for coracle terms.

Coracles are traditionally carried to the river over the shoulders, held in place by a leather strap across the chest. That, according to Rees, is why it is rare to see a woman in a coracle: the necessary position of the strap is too uncomfortable for the female anatomy. But perhaps it is mainly a matter of tradition that coracle fishing is a male preserve.

A finance broker, Malcolm Rees comes from a family of fishermen and boat builders, a long line of coracle-makers stretching back 300 years. He is passing on the skill to a nephew and cousins, all local young men in their twenties. Making a living by fishing in this way is no longer viable (although catches still make their way swiftly to local restaurants) and on the Towy eight licence holders remain, each with a couple of endorsees who also have the right to fish. There are only five regular pairs of coracle fishermen on the Towy, six on the Teifi. The Carmarthen Coracle and Netsmen's Association nevertheless has a lively Facebook presence showcasing family events and current activities as well as historical photographs.

Variations on this simple craft can be found in other parts of the country and in Ireland, made of slightly different materials or shaped to answer the needs of a particular river. Although it has to be admitted that coracle fishing is in decline, the art of making them is offered as a tourist activity as far away as Ironbridge. And there is no falling off of interest among academics: it has even been claimed that Noah's Ark was nothing more than an enormous coracle.

Coracle Society Website

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