Marlinespike Seamanship

Sailing this afternoon in a fluky (erratic) breeze with my son, I realized it isn’t the sailing that appeals to me, but the boats. I’ve always wanted to build a boat — a small rowing skiff or a kayak perhaps — but haven’t had the time. So I make myself content with the annual painting thing, some boat “dentristry” and best of all, the ongoing art of keeping a boat sailing known as marlinespike (or marlinspike) seamanship.

This is a world of sennets and turk’s heads, grommets and whip finish (with and without a needle), eye splices, back splices, long splices and end splices. Of bowlines, clove hitches, half hitches and sheepshanks. The art of making baggywrinkle, of finishing off a crown knot, of weaving a bell rope.

I keep my tools in my “ditty bag” a canvas bag with rope handles (if I was truly gifted I would have sewn it myself with a sailor’s palm, seam rubber, a piece of beeswax and a spool of sail thread). They consist of a rigging knife with a fid (a pointed implement for breaking open the strands of rope for splicing), heavy, big-eyed triangular sail needles, a ball of Italian marlin that smells the way the sea should smell, smoky and mysterious, tape, cords, light line, manila, bell cord, and pliers.

I am, by no means, even a novice, but I am one of the few people I know who can knock out a new anchor or mooring pennant in ten minutes, complete with galvanized eyes and shackles properly locked down with bronze wire.

When I was ten I went skiing in the Berkshires at my cousin’s place in Adams, near Williamstown in the extreme northwestern corner of the state at the base of the state’s highest mountain, Mount Greylock. There was a small ski hill with a rope tow — a big 1000 foot loop of heavy hawser that ran up the hill and around an old car wheel before going back down to a tractor engine modified to drive a big spool. The rope tow was pretty old, and didn’t get used very often, and within ten minutes of starting the rope snapped.

I was disappointed as were about 100 other people. The man who owned the hill apologized and offered to pay back everyone’s dollar.

“Why would you do that? We want to ski,” my father lived to embarrass me. The ski hill owner said there was nothing he could do, the rope had parted and he couldn’t tie the ends together with a knot, the rope was too thick and the knot wouldn’t pass through the pulleys at the top and bottom of the hill.

“You don’t need a knot. You need a Long Splice. Let me show you.”

My father took off his coat, lay it on the snow and placed the two snapped ends of rope on it. He borrowed a knife and cut the line back a foot on each piece and then unraveled about 15 turns worth of the strands. He “married” the two lines and began to re-lay the strands into the opposing line, making a seamless connection that was no thicker than the original line. He shaved down the strands as he went, and in about 30 minutes, stood up, asked for a hammer, and pounded the line smooth.

Then he asked my uncle to find the splice. He couldn’t, or pretended he couldn’t.

“Where in hell did you learn to do that? The Boy Scouts?” asked one of the other fathers.

“Junior Seamanship test at the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club,” said my father. And we were back skiing.

That spring I asked him to show me the …. ahem, ropes. He obliged, getting an old manila (hemp) halyard and cutting it up into small lengths for me to practice knots on. He drilled me through about a dozen standard sailing knots, then moved me onto whip finishes — the use of a waxed piece of string/thread to “finish” or bind the end of a cut rope so it won’t unravel. By the end of the summer I could do every splice except the long splice, the one that saved the ski hill (and I still can’t do it, as it is very challenging).

Over the years I learned how to do decorative work such as turk’s heads and sennets from Dr. Robert Oldale, the preeminent geologist at the United State Geological Survey in Woods Hole. He is a very salty man, and showed me some very good tricks for making stuff like this:

Tim Whitten,

The best rope worker-rigger I know is Jeff Higgins here in Cotuit. He can do industrial level rigging, including splicing steel cable and rigging sophisticated towing set ups on commercial tugs. He can go aloft in a bosun’s chair and do mast-top repairs, and in general knows more about marlinespike seamanship that anyone in my generation.

There are two definitive works when it comes to knotwork. One is Clifford Ashley’s Ashley’s Book of Knots. Ashley, a native of New Bedford, the saltiest city in the United States, was a marine artist/illustrator who shipped out on one of the last commercial whaling ships to sail out of New Bedford. Ashley studied with Howard Pyle in Wilmington, Delaware, as part of the famous Brandywine School of illustration.

The other classic text is the Bluejacket’s Manual, the handbook of the U.S. Navy. I actually memorized it as a kid, having found an old copy from World War II in one of the upstairs bookcases. That’s the book to read if you want to learn how to splice wire.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Marlinespike Seamanship”

  1. David, Indeed you are a rich character. There are so many lost arts out there, all dying out to our modern technology that seems to simultaneously enable us to do amazing things while rendering us helpless to resolve simple issues when the technology is unavailable.

    Deprived of a calculator, how many people can do any kind of advanced math? The slide rule is barely remembered, let alone used. Abacus counting and long hand are left behind in grade school.

    Awesome story on the ropesplice – interesting to see that story juxtaposed with your prior entry on blogging.

  2. It’s amazing to think that if electrical power and the gasoline engine were unavailable to us, a majority of the population would literally be unable to function. A vast amount of cultural memory is being lost…

    Excellent post.

  3. The art of making baggywrinkle is indeed a fine thing. Truly. So fine.

    Umm, Mr Hemingway? You do realize there’s this big fish-like thing dragging from your line off the boat, right?

    What I find astounding is you can splice a rope with a carrot so seamlessly but you still can’t run your own Cat5 and crimp the connectors…

    You’re a mystery, Mr. Churbuck.

  4. Argh David. on of your best posts ever and a nice tribute to your Dad as well as your love and respect for seamanship.
    one of the most unusual places wnere people are taught rigging, splicing and knots is the San Francisco Municiple Railway, where the skills ae used to keep the cable cars running.

    Have a good week Sahib.


  5. Dave, enjoy the ‘vindaloo’! I stopped by Jeff & Laurie Higgin’s house, before we left Cotuit, this weekend & lo, what knotty creation did I behold, but a Turk’s head wine bottle holder, he had lashed together. He is truly, the lord of the splice! Great story about Tony. What a character. Your dad was truly one of a kind! He would have enjoyed the “angry pirate” move we all learned last week. Cheers HD

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