Monday, February 26, 2007

Adam Ardouin Visits Bernard Thomas in Wales

During a visit to his native Wales this January, Oamaru coracle enthusiast Adam Ardouin hunts down a coracle legend.

Bernard Thomas is his name. If you like climbing mountains seek out Sir Edmund Hillary, if soccer is your game then Pele is the one, but if coracles float your boat, then Bernard Thomas is your man. The 84 year old Welshman is surely the most experienced and accomplished coracle expert there is. Craftsman, sailor, fisherman, sage: he is unrivalled when it comes to the little black boats. It is he who crossed single-handed 36 kilometres of stubborn English Channel to plant the flag of his country upon French soil.
When I returned to Wales from Oamaru for the first time in 4 years with a new found interest in coracles, I made sure to arrange a meeting.
Bringing the goodwill of the Southern Hemisphere Coracle Society and an armful of New Zealand newspaper cuttings I arrived in Bernard’s home village. I went to Llechryd on the banks of the River Teifi to offer news of our far away exploits, but also to learn what I could from the old master. I wanted to know of his building and paddling secrets, his experiences, but mostly I just wanted to get in the river with him in one of his coracles. Unfortunately, the teeming Teifi had other plans. Heavy rain and swift, high waters drowned any hopes of my getting afloat that day. Even so, my visit was to be far from disappointing.
Bernard’s cottage was easy to spot. Only a few steps from the river’s edge was a garden wall encrusted with the dark, limpet shapes of maybe a dozen coracles. And then, as I approached, the front door swung open, and like some grizzled Willy Wonka, out danced the man himself. Mr Bernard Thomas: eyes twinkling, elbows flapping, he hopped clean over the garden gate. “Croeso! Welcome! Come inside mun, sit yourself down over by here…”
The next few hours were captivating for me. With his devoted 3-legged dog at his feet and with a glass of his rather fine home-made berry liqueur in his hand, Bernard spoke in his sing-song Welsh accent with wit, warmth and knowledge.
We spoke of the history of the river and of the Coracle Fishing Wars between Llechryd and nearby Cenarth.
He told me how he still goes out in his boat almost every day or night and is still adding to his fleet.
He talked of his beloved Teifi coracles, how best to control one and how to gather materials and make one. While not the fastest coracle, the Teifi design, Bernard says, is the best suited to the river from which it gets its name. There is none more sturdy and stable in rough waters. It’s all in the hull’s shape and the pattern of the willow frame, he explains. Although he has trained many people, Bernard is self taught. He insists his building knowledge came to him in a dream…
We talked of his unmatched Channel crossing and how it has passed into folklore. But Bernard was keen to point out that this was by no means his most challenging or rewarding time in a coracle. He is most serious and most proud when speaking about his efforts to rescue sheep from deadly floodwaters. He recounts one incident when he battled long into the night to save a flock of 50 or so from drowning. Entirely on his own, he rescued every last one, but he tells me softly, “I nearly died that night.” He pauses then cracks a wicked grin, “The farmer was grateful, mind you. He offered me a Kit Kat.” Bernard informs me he declined and mutters something in Welsh about farmers.
Bernard is used to danger; his most extraordinary story recalls an experience not in a coracle but in a lifeboat during the war. When his navy ship went down he survived for 12 days before being picked up. He stayed alive by cutting his tongue with his sharpened shirt buttons to drink the blood, and by eating his shoes, belt and the legs of his trousers up to his shins. “And after all that, the buggers only gave me 4 days leave,” he says, and he reaches for a biscuit.
I shared news of Oamaru’s Celtic boat community with him. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy the idea of a group of kiwis building and racing coracles and showed me videos of the local regattas he has organised. There were races of varying lengths, from short sprints to long distance marathons. One spectacular race that started on land involved a swarm of contestants, coracles aloft, crashing down a 4 metre high grassy bank into the water. My favourite event though, must be the joust, where hardy mariners attempt to upend each other’s craft. The last person still in their boat is declared the winner. Perhaps John and Lee-Ann will introduce something similar in Oamaru one year.Before I said goodbye I told Bernard of an offer for him to come over to Oamaru, all expenses paid, to meet people and share his expertise. He looked at me bright eyed and told me he had seen the world already and that his travelling days were over. I’m not so sure though. Bernard Thomas seems to like a challenge. I wouldn’t put it past the wiry old veteran to come paddling in his coracle into Oamaru harbour some day soon, maybe barefoot and with his long trousers eaten into shorts. I am hopeful I may yet get the chance to go on the water with him.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Adam, if you read this, please get in touch, be great to hear from you. Paul Sutton. go onto secamb website and find me on there for email!!!