Students in the seventh and eighth grade class at Spirit of the Lake Community School in Duluth finally got to experience the fruits of their labor last week when they took to the water in a boat they built themselves.

Woodworking instructor John Finkle, of Noatun: The Duluth Faering Project, spent the past several months leading the students in the creation of a curragh, or coracle. The small, round boat was made from locally harvested hazel rods (withes — flexible branches) and red osier dogwood, with a canvas drop cloth on the outside.

Instructor John Finkle and students in his seventh and eighth grade woodworking class at Spirit of the Lake Community School launch their handmade curragh in the Lester River in June 2021. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Lake Community School)
Instructor John Finkle and students in his seventh and eighth grade woodworking class at Spirit of the Lake Community School launch their handmade curragh in the Lester River in June 2021. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Lake Community School)

"It's one of the world's earliest boat designs," Finkle said. "It's been used by the Irish of the Aran Islands until recent times, as well as the Welsh. The Anishinaabe made them as well, using a hide on the outside."

The circular boat is paddled with a side-to-side sculling action, which student Quinn Spohn said was tricky to do.

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A student from Spirit of the Lake Community School paddles a handmade curragh in the Lester River in June 2021. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Lake Community School)
A student from Spirit of the Lake Community School paddles a handmade curragh in the Lester River in June 2021. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Lake Community School)

"It was really tippy, too," Spohn said. "It was really close to the edge of the water and felt like it was almost going to fill up. But it was fun."

Spohn said the project was "like nothing we've done before" and he had to learn many skills to help with boat building, including weaving the wood to make the base, stretching the canvas and sewing it around the frame.

"It's that tight woven cotton that keeps the water out," Finkle said. "That and the paint on the bottom."

"Yeah, painting it was probably my favorite part," Spohn said.

Instructor John Finkle and students in his seventh and eighth grade woodworking class at Spirit of the Lake Community School carry their handmade curragh to the Lester Park in June 2021. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Lake Community School)
Instructor John Finkle and students in his seventh and eighth grade woodworking class at Spirit of the Lake Community School carry their handmade curragh to the Lester Park in June 2021. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Lake Community School)

The bottom woven cloth was painted with latex and oil-based paints to give it a watertight seal. Traditionally, the boats would use tar to cover the bottom, but Finkle said the paint worked for their purposes.

The students took out the boat on the Lester River during the last week of classes. The seventh and eighth grade students were joined by the third grade classes, as they'd done a history project on the most famous curragh.

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Brendan the Navigator made a 25- to 30-foot curragh with a sail in the early fifth century. He and his crew sailed from Ireland to Iceland. His voyage is celebrated in stories and traditional folk songs and was recreated in 1975 by Tim Severin, whose 30-foot boat "The Brendan" was covered in 47 ox hides.

"The third graders put together a short play on Brendan the Navigator and they sang the folk song about him," Finkle said. "It was all about exploring the unknown and really sweet. That's what this whole project is about — exploring where we are and learning new skills."

Finkle said he hopes to continue to build boats with future classes. He's open to making more curraghs, but would also love to start making other styles of boats as well.