Tying the Turk’s Head

In marlinspike seamanship there are practical and decorative arts. Practical work is the province of the rigger, serving and parceling, baggywrinkle and splices, the rope and cable work necessary to step spars, rig them, and get a boat in order for the sea. The decorative arts were born probably out of boredom in the forecastle of many a vessel, and I’ve read of captains who felt it important to lay in a store of “small stuff” before casting off — thin line and twine — so their crews could keep their hands occupied and their minds off of wormy hardtack and tyrannical mates.

I’ve always been a fan of the Turk’s Head, a relatively ancient knot that is best described as a circular braid tied around tillers and railings, and people’s wrists and ankles — hence its other name, the Sailor’s Bracelet. They aren’t the easiest thing to learn how to tie, but once you do a few it becomes pretty simple and takes only ten minutes to knock off a simple bracelet for a nephew or a niece. These are popular emblems of the summer for kids around Cotuit, and I can recall wearing mine back to school and leaving it on well into the fall term until it became too dirty and smelly to ignore anymore and had to be cut off.

Turk’s Heads can be fantastically complex affairs that are much broader than a bracelet and can cover fairly wide expanses. The old village doctor, Dr. Donald Higgins, was a prodigious knot tier and the tiller of his catboat always sported a beautiful example of one of the more complex knots.

Jack Gartside Boats
Uncle Fester — who knows my mathematical limits — would laugh his butt off if he saw me try to pass the following statement off without attribution, so of course I will credit the Wikipedia. Let’s just say there are some very interesting patterns possible … and rendered impossible, but the math behind the knot is what makes Turk’s Heads an interesting diversion on a rainy day:

“Mathematically, the number of strands is the greatest common divisor of the number of leads and the number of bends; the knot may be tied with a single strand if and only if the two numbers are coprime.For example, 3 lead x 5 bight (3×5), or 5 lead x 7 bight (5×7).”

I won’t give instructions, but there are some good resources. I do not suggest learning how to tie the knot following Clifford Ashley’s The Ashley Book of Knots. And Tom Hall’s Introduction to Turk’s-Head Knots, is good, but also a bit dense. My daughter got the knack from following a simple single-sheet at Jan Brett’s site.

Now my next project it to make a fancy lanyard as strap for my new sunglasses.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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