Will There Be A Mad Cow?

A chilly summer in northern latitudes

Danielle, game as ever, steers Ganymede across the Straits of Belle Isle in northern Newfoundland

My wife Danielle and I have been married for quite some time.  How long exactly I can’t say—no doubt my mother has it written down somewhere—it seems that a couple times a year we get a congratulatory note from her on making it thus far.  But believe me when I testify that it’s been a while.  And in all those long years, almost every scheme I’ve cooked up has met with Danielle’s support and enthusiasm.  Whether the idea was to explore a road in Baja marked only by a dotted line (I’ve carefully avoided unpaved roads since then) or to sail to South America in a sailboat bought at a thrift store, or build a gaff-rigged cutter, or sail it the wrong way ‘round Newfoundland, she’s always been game.

A modern, sturdy, composite coracle.

A three-foot coracle. Boats don’t get much tinier.

So it came as a complete surprise when my latest well-reasoned, sensible, and totally awesome scheme met with not only skepticism, but with downright discouraging incredulity.  Her precise words, if memory serves, were, “Are you crazy?”  What I’m talking about, of course, is the idea that hit me the day we sea-trialed my latest boat construction—a 3-foot coracle.  Now I made the coracle for several reasons: first, because I have a thing for tiny watercraft, and nothing is tinier than a coracle  (I don’t count SUPs or inner tubes as watercraft—any device that guarantees you’ll get wet is a failure of boat design).

Coracle in the Kicky

So light and easy even a child can carry and launch it.

Second, because the girls will need tenders for the boats they’re designing that I’d like to build some day, and a coracle will be the lightest, cheapest dinghy to build, and third, because a prototype coracle was the most fun-sounding thing on my project list. 

It was dead easy to knock together a plug out of plywood scraps, fair it over with wallboard joint compound, and lay the hull up over it.  Once it came off the plug, all I had to do was crimp the rim to induce tumblehome, glass on a gunwale, and it was ready for primer.  Easiest boat I’ve ever built.

Not quite large enough for an adult. It was difficult not to ship water.

As the girls gleefully paddled it around the Kickemuit River, it was evident that an adult-sized coracle would need an extra foot of diameter and a couple more inches of freeboard.  No problem. That was the purpose of the smaller, inexpensive prototype.  But it was as I went on to wonder how big would be too big that it hit me: there really isn’t any limit on size!  What if I could build an ocean-going coracle to sail across to Europe?

“Wife!” I could hardly contain my excitement.  “I’m going to build and ocean-going coracle and do a transatlantic!”

“Are you crazy?”

Quickly scanning my conscience for what I might have said wrong, I added generously, “Well, you can come too of course.”

“Are you crazy?”

“Wouldn’t—wouldn’t you like to come?” This was the astonishing thing I wrote about at the beginning of this post.

A preliminary hand-sketch of the ocean-going coracle.

“Of course not!  I can’t think of anything more uncomfortable than tossing around in a barf bowl like that.”

“But it will be decked over, with a snug cabin and a galley and a woodstove.  It’ll be perfectly safe and seaworthy.”

“No doubt it’ll be all that,” said Danielle. “But if you want to do it, I’m staying here.”

Coracle design fever has caught the girls. These are Emily’s ideas for coracle design and decoration. The big blue one is for selling soup on chilly days.

Well, at least I had permission.  But there were still logistical hurdles to leap.  “How much will it cost to build an 18-foot coracle?” Antigone, our oldest daughter, wanted to know as we chalked out the design on the driveway.  We did some quick figures.  A couple drums of resin, several rolls fiberglass, core foam, fittings….

“Looks like five or six thousand dollars at least,” I concluded finally.

“Shouldn’t we save that money for the fifty-foot schooner?” When did she become so sensible?

“We’ll have to do a Kickstarter, I guess.”

“You mean people will just give you money to cross the ocean in a coracle?”

“Probably not,” I concluded. I still remembered the failed Kickstarter campaign I’d tried to raise money with for my rigging business.  I had been offering something tangible then.  Here all I had to offer was that I’d be out of everyone’s hair for a few weeks.  Hardly worth six thousand bucks.

“What we need is an angle—we need to do the trip to raise awareness for some cause or other.  People are suckers for that.”

“What sort of a cause? Like vitamin D deficiency?”  We have recently begun taking supplements to make up for the lack of sunshine in the winter.

“Something more exotic-sounding and misunderstood,” I mused.  “What about for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy?”  It’s the biggest set of words I know.

Antigone smiled. “We could call the coracle the Mad Cow.  Then maybe if you write a book about the trip it’ll make enough money for the schooner.”  She keeps coming back to that.  Still…

It may be a little farfetched, but that’s the way that dreams begin.  A notion your wife thinks is crazy, a little support from your fan base—or your daughters—and next thing you know you’re rattling your fillings out on an unpaved, washed-out road in Baja, or as Danielle puts it, puking your way across the Atlantic in a boat barely fit for a river.

Our current Mad Cow: Buxtehude the Navigator. I rescued him from the water, no doubt after he fell off a ship while trying to take a sextant sight.

Will there ever be a Mad Cow? Will it ride the tossing billows of the North Atlantic?  Who knows? It’s a dream for now, perhaps a foolish one, but captivating nonetheless—and that’s just how many an excellent adventure has begun.