Knotsman: Clifford Ashley 1881-1947

I thought I’d write more under the “seamanship” tag and start an informal series of profiles and vignettes on all things nautical, maritime and marlinespike.

In the mid-1960s it was fashionable to wear a Turk’s Head rope bracelet around one’s wrist. The bracelets were loose when slipped on in June, and tight, greenish-grey and smelly by September when they had to come off around Columbus Day. I’d sit in the classroom during Indian Summer and sniff mine, to remind myself of sailing and harbor life with the faint odor of clams, black mud, and old salt. Mrs. Shaps and Reid Higgins could tie them. Mrs. Shaps kept a spool of 1/8th cotton line in a bag and tied the Turk’s Heads while sunning herself at Loop Beach. Mister Higgins could tie very ornate, mathematical knots. Some were long tubes of precise layovers and unders that fit over the end of a curved catboat tiller. Robert Oldale, a friend from Wild Harbor and a scientist at the United States Geological Survey in Woods Hole specialized in sennits and bell pulls, beckets and button knots.

The king of knots was the late Clifford Warren Ashley. Born in New Bedford, his Ashley Book of Knots
stands as the masterpiece in marlinespike seamanship and knots: the craft of the sailor and the rigger, the tradesman and the teamster. The author Ashley was also an artist and illustrator, trained in the Brandywine School founded by Howard Pyle in Delaware. Pyle’s style and influence can be seen in the work of his students such as

N.C. Wyeth. and his love for seascapes such as Pyle’s masterpiece, Treasure Island, was passed to Ashley, who own experiences at sea as crew on a New Bedford whaler made his work among the most credible and accurate of any marine artist. Critic/blogger Paul Giambatta writes:

“He, of all the illustrators who painted wooden ships and iron men, really knew his subjects well from having lived with them all of his life. I think it’s what sets him apart from the others who painted ships and the men who sailed and worked them. Whether his illustrations have been derived from photos or sketched from life, it’s Ashley’s conviction and confidence that gives his work its power and credulity.”

His work on knots is truly encyclopedic, with dozens of variations on the same theme continuing diligently page by page, with Ashley’s precise but wonderful little illustrations enlivening tangles of bights and loops and tag ends being woven into a monkey’s fist or hangman’s noose. Serving and parceling – the art of covering rope with twine and tar to preserve a ship’s manila stays against the elements – is well covered, as is caulking, embroidery knots, buttons and splices. If it can be tied, it can be found in Ashley, who himself is credited with the invention of Ashley’s Stopper Knot.

Ashley returned from Delaware to live and work in the New Bedford/Fairhaven area during the twilight of the American whaling fishery, shipping out on one of the last true whaling expeditions to sail from New Bedford. His paintings are well represented on the walls of the New Bedford Whaling Museum (I am a soon to lapse member). The whaling museum just went very Web 2.0, launching a blog, Flickr stream, and twitter presence.

I’ve have followed Ashley and have managed to pull off some of his knots. I can tie most of the major sailing knots – bowline, square, reef, clove hitch, half-hitch, figure-8, sheetbend, sheepshank and monkey’s fist. For splices I can do: eye, back, short, and long. For decorative I have tied a turk’s head, a few sennits, and a crown knot, but never anything very pretty. I replaced the broken zipper pulls on my nine year-old EMS backpack with little monkey’s fists which work much better than the original equipment.

Past posts on marlinespike seamanship:

Next I’ll take a look at my ditty bag – a knot-tyer’s “toolbox”





Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

One thought on “Knotsman: Clifford Ashley 1881-1947”

  1. Ashley also inspired Annie Proulx’s “Shipping News” which I have just finished. There are wonderful illustrations of knots throughout the book.

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