Tradition has always played an important role for sea-going people in every culture; serving as both a teaching tool and stabilizer of material culture and human behaviors.
In a mono-culture traditions can remain intact and unchanged for long, long periods of time. But as communication between peoples increases, so does the cross fertilization of ideas. The appearance of New Bedford whale boats in the Bering Sea completely changed to look and construction of Umiaks in that area forever.
New materials and technologies can have a beneficial role, but the way of a ship in the sea is unchanged and unchanging. Hydrodynamics don't care if your boat is made of walrus skin, or titanium, provided you keep the other variables the same. What is in flux are ideas. New materials have given skin boats a new lease on life, but in actual form and realization they are basically unchanged from their orignal neolitihic roots. But their playing field is bigger, and the options are more varied.
The obvious source of skin boat tradition comes from the Esk-Aleut peoples of the arctic. This is the primary source for boats, paddles, gear, and any number of construction concepts. Any skin kayak builder needs to do his or her homework in this area.
But skin-on-frame construction is too useful, versatile and too much fun to be limited only to the traditional forms of kayak and umiak.Tough synthetic skins have made many types of skin boat thoroughly practical. There is a wide range of traditional smallcraft that can be built in skin, in most cases making a stronger, lighter boat than the wooden or glass/plastic version.
Take the 22 1/2 foot lug-rigged mothership under construction in my shop right now. Its' arctic roots are clear - in form and construction it shows a strong umiak influence. But it also owes a great deal to the European/ American Smallcraft tradition of working and fishing craft, specifically Swampscott dories, and some English and Norwegian 'longshore craft. Might as well throw in a generous dose of "yacht" construction too, for lack of a better word. I've worked in too many boatyards, and been on too many nice sailboats for that not to have rubbed off on me too. Also a certain 14 foot workboat in Bob Derecktor's yard in Mamaroneck NY. (14 foot LOA - 90 H.P. Diesel - 24" Propellor)
This is a pretty complex heritage, and about as tangled a web of influences as you might hope for. Just for fun, I've traced out some of the more important threads below. By now it should be obvious that even when I'm alone in my shop, there is always someone looking over my shoulder.
One last point. You don't always need to meet someone for them to be a teacher. A builder's work speaks for itself, and any boat you look at can be food for thought. Books, photos,and drawings allow us to learn from a wide variety of sources, and to reach back into the past, or to visit places we've never been. Of course your shop is the court of last resort. You learn to build boats by building them - you need to pay your dues to join the club.
Yachts, Sailors, and Boatshop guys