Editorial September 2001 Issue

Give Me Enough Rope

Left to their own devices, some sailors buy rope the way Imelda Marcos used to buy shoes—impulsively, profligately, with a kind of bulemic urge. Even today when some of us go to a boatshow we have to stand for a long time next to the booth with the stacked coils of multicolored climbing rope and odds-and-ends in all lengths and diameters, wishing we could come up with a reason to get just a little bit more. There's no such thing as too much. We're melded with Imelda.

In the basement I have everything from spools of whipping twine and tarred marline (which, when you put your nose to it, takes you directly to the fo'c'sl of the Charles W. Morgan) to big coils of nylon anchor rode waiting for a project.

If you have enough rope, projects suggest themselves all the time. Last winter, the morning after shoveling off our 57th snowstorm, I got out the gantline I used to use in a four-part tackle to go up the mast. It's a nice soft blue braid, about 160 feet, and I made a rope-tow with it up the little hill in the back yard—put a snap hook in it with a cow hitch so I could pull the lighter kids and their sleds up the hill. The top end went through a block tied to a tree up the hill, the bottom end through a snatch block hooked into a loop around another tree at the bottom. The loop was closed by two rolling hitches, so the whole thing could be adjusted easily. I had more fun than the kids.

Chris Caswell, in a commendable column in Sailing a couple of months ago (extolling the habits and skills of seamanship that make sailors so handy —nay, almost godlike—on land) told the story of a friend who needed some furniture moved out of a second-story apartment. Someone retrieved a mainsheet system from a boat in the harbor, and bingo, out the window and down the stuff came.

Rope, rightly rove, can make you look devilishly clever. The more you know about it, and the more you practice with it and rely on it, the more projects and jury-rig solutions will pop up and demand to be tried out. This can actually lead to some hairbrained schemes, like the time someone who shall remain nameless managed to lash a trailer to a hitchless car bumper with something that became, in the space of a mile or so, both Gordian Knot and Fender Bender.

On the other hand, rope, arguably the most versatile tool in the sailor's chest, can and should be used in a lot of places where plastic or metal fittings are now installed in the name of convenience, but at the cost of weight, corrosion, and holes in the boat.

Truly there's nothing so important, so familiar, so comforting to sailors as rope. It's nice to sit down on a winter's night with Clifford Ashley or one of his disciples, and 10 feet of three-strand rope, and work things out. For many, a well-made knot board is a fascinating sculpture, and a Carrick Bend is an example of symmetry and strength to rival the most sacred geometry.

Before I wax maudlin, though, there's business at hand: It's tough to make sailing systems work without rope, and that's a big concern in this month's issue—specifically the stuff we use for basic running rigging. It was time to take a close look at high-tech line . What we learned (see page 14) was not a shock, thanks to Brion Toss and some others, but if you haven't heard about the very great differences in the properties of high-modulus line and double-braid Dacron…

Not to give away the story, but even as the ropemakers strive to work the kinks out of the high-tech stuff, the rest of us are going to have to learn some new marlinespike tricks. It won't be easy. We will need handy references with all sorts of diagrams, and we will knit our brows in perplexity. But we can bear in mind what Hervey Garrett Smith said in his introduction to The Arts of the Sailor, back in '53: "In the final analysis, the pleasures that I have derived from the practice of these skills more than compensate for the endeavor."

—Doug Logan

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