March 1 2017 01:04 PM

Traditional Irish `skin boats´ take shape in Lake Lansing barn

Former MSU wood shop director Walt Peebles points at one of two Irish currachs or “skin boats” he is building with Lansing attorney Jim Neal (far left). Looking on is Caitlín Doherty, curator of the Broad Art Museum (far right) and boat enthusiast Jack Cahill. The currachs will be on display at MSU’s Quiet Water Symposium Saturday.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

Rain drummed on the roof of a workshop near Lake Lansing Thursday where two boat-shaped, basket-like frames lay upturned on worktables.

Later, there would be beer. But first, it was time to see how the currachs were coming along.

Lansing attorney Jim Neal and his friend Walt Peebles, former head of the wood shop at MSU’s Kresge Art Museum, are building two currachs — wood-framed fishing boats stretched with animal skins that date, in one form or another, to the first century and maybe earlier.

“An experienced builder can build one in two weeks,” Neal said. “We’ve been at this for four months.”

Neal and Peebles will display the currachs and carry on their work in full view at MSU’s annual spring extravaganza of non-motorized aquatic transportation, the Quiet Water Symposium.

They both like to talk, though, so progress may be limited.

The symposium is the gentle, unplugged version of a spring-fever RV and boat show, with displays of kayaks, canoes, quiet gear, quiet films and quiet books about quiet trips to quiet places.

Caitlín Doherty, curator of the Broad Art Museum and a native of Ireland, joined the group at Neal’s barn Thursday to ogle the boats.

“Nothing better than the smell of wood in a workshop,” Doherty said.

Doherty admired the builders’ craftsmanship and “understanding of the material,” but Neal was resistant to the idea that the boats themselves are art.

“I wouldn’t take that too far,” Neal said. “Currachs are work boats.”

Jack Cahill, an Irish history buff, was the last admirer to arrive. Cahill, retired from the Michigan attorney general’s office, raced currrachs in Ireland in the 1980s.

“I never imagined I’d see a currach in Lansing,” Cahill said.

Peebles’ currach has a “cocked up” or sharply angled bow designed to ride out angry North Atlantic waves.

Until early in the 20th century, currachs were the only way of getting people, supplies and even livestock from transport steamers to places like the rugged Aran Islands. Peebles told the story of a horse falling out of a currach and the owner somehow getting it back into the boat.

In heavy seas, the rider rows parallel to the swells, turns the boat into a wave, leaps over it and repeats the process.

“They were designed to handle rough water,” Peebles said. “They can turn easily and ride pretty high, because they’re so light.”

As they near the shore, they can be “swiftly snatched from the frothing sea,” as Mike Smylie writes in “Traditional Fishing Boats of England & Ireland.”

Over the centuries, each seaside county of Ireland developed its own design. Neal’s is a Donegal paddling currach, the smallest variation, and Peebles’ is modeled after the Sheephaven type (“renowned for its seaworthiness, though weren’t they all?” Smylie writes).

Resting high and dry in Neal’s workshop, the hulls bristled with clamps holding the long wooden slats, or stringers, to the ribs.

Neal and Peebles started work in November by building a pine gunnel frame, the sturdy rim of the boat — and the part you hang on to for dear life. They cut the ribs out of salvage lumber, then soaked, steamed and gently bent them into shape, fitting them into holes carefully cut into the gunnel.

A 1930s book by James Hornell was a crucial resource, but currach plans are in short supply.

“Plans? You duplicate the boat you’re replacing,” one practical-minded builder told Neal.

Last week, Neal and Peebles spent a whole day placing about 100 rivets and another day bending stringers into place so the boats could be transported to the MSU Pavilion Saturday. Instead of using the ox hides and pitch of olden days, they will cover the carrachs with 15-ounce canvas and paint.

In the 1970s, British historian Tim Severin sailed across the Atlantic in a hide wrapped currach to re-create the sixth century voyage of St. Brendan. Unlike Severin, Neal and Peebles aren’t restricting themselves to period tools in building their craft.

“We’re not crazy,” Neal said.

Let the jury decide, counselor. Peebles started his “skin boat” obsession by building coracles, small Welsh boats a fisherman could strap on his back, haul upstream and launch.

“Then we decided to go from Wales to Ireland,” Neal said.

Doherty perked up.

“You went from Wales to Ireland?”

“No, I’ve never been anywhere,” Neal said.

He meant it figuratively.

Doherty shares Neal’s interest in getting past cultural stereotypes that dominate American celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day. A basement exhibit curated by Doherty at the Broad, “The Wearing of the Green,” delves into portrayals of Irish-Americans from the 19th century.

While browsing through Neal’s reference books, Doherty spotted a photo of a village in County Waterford.

“We spend all our summer here,” she said, pointing to the photo. “My family lives around that bend.”

She even recognized a man working a fishing net in the photo, even though he was seen from the backside.

“The most tiny village you can imagine — very bizarre that it’s in a book I see for the first time in Michigan,” Doherty said.

Meanwhile, in back of the workshop, Neal and Peebles had another artifact to show off: a genuine Irish working currach, cobbled together with spikes and roofing nails, with almost every rib broken but still seaworthy.

An auctioneer told Peebles that the currach was on display at a Lansing-area Irish-themed restaurant that went out of business years ago. Peebles figures he saved it from ending up as a planter.

Peebles and Neal patched it up with tar and took it onto Lake Lansing recently.

“He looked a little worried,” Peebles said of Neal. Neal still looked a little worried. “As long as you can keep up with the leaks, you’re in decent shape.”

The pair have amassed a fascinating collection of “skin boats” at Neal’s barn, a few of which they will bring to Saturday’s symposium.

There’s a gorgeous 1928 Carleton canoe with cedar ribs and planking, kayaks made by the Chicago’s Mead Glider Co., a stubby, 10-foot fold-flat boat made of plywood and canvas and a 13-foot-long, cozy-looking heavy canvas boat with spring steel ribs probably made in the 1930s by the Folding Boat Co. of Kalamazoo.

It’s hard not to smile at the shortest boat ever made by ChrisCraft, a handsome kit boat assembled by Neal Charles Blackman, an education professor at MSU, in 1952.

Thereby hangs a tale, and Neal was happy to tell it in his deadpan manner.

Blackman took the boat onto Muskegon Lake for a maiden voyage, determined to impress a woman he was sweet on. He immediately ran it onto a rock and never used it again. (The woman married him anyway.) The boat sat in the rafters of Blackman’s home on Dobie Road for 50 years until Neal bought it, fixed the hole and put it back into service.

Clearly, there was no foreseeable end to the boat stories locked in this workshop, which bodes ill for hopes of any progress on the currachs Saturday.

Before we could finish looking at the tiny ChrisCraft, Neal was in the back of the barn, opening up a case of beer.

Quiet Water Symposium

9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday, March 4
$10/$5 students/children, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and MSU Outdoor Club members FREE
MSU Pavilion
4301 Farm Lane, Lansing