Ditty Bags

Since it felt like spring today I actually started messing around with the boats, getting ready to launch the motorboat for some spring clamming and not looking forward to launching and rigging the new boat (more on that later). Boat work means dragging out the tools, so out came the ditty bag. I don’t know the etymology of the word “ditty” – but there is a good treatise on the subject by Louis Bartos, an Alaskan sailmarker. Clifford Ashley wrote about them, and gives instructions on how to make one. Some of the eyelet work and draw-string/ handle/lanyard knots cited by Ashley are very creative works of art.

As a kid learning sailing I was impressed when the sailing instructors and grown-ups came down to the beach with their ditty bags – canvas totes filled with tools for working on the rigging of boats. Bob Boden, John Peck, and some of the saltier people in the village had very well stocked ditty bags. At a minimum, a good rigger’s kit consists of:

  • A block of beeswax for waxing linen thread used in whipping, or finishing lines (aka ropes)
  • A fid, or marlinespike, for forcing open the strands of a line when splicing
  • A rigging knife – generally a blunt tipped, fairly stout blade, often with a marlinespike included
  • A sailor’s palm: a leather strap with a thumb hole and a metal base, think of a industrial thimble for pushing needles
  • Sailmaker needles: very big, sometimes three-sided, kept in a old tobacco tin with a cotton ball soaked in 3-in-1 oil to keep them from rusting
  • Marline – tarred twine that smells like nothing else in the world. Marline is the most salty, nautical smell I can think of. Lapsang Souchong tea tastes like marline smells.

I load my ditty bag up with some additional tools, including a special fid for splicing braided lines, an awl, a swaging tool for compressing wire cable sleeves, rubber mallet, and a small compartmentalized box filled with cotter pins, washers, and assorted stainless steel and silicon bronze hardware for random boat repairs. I use a canvas bag I bought from my local sailmaker, Squeateague Sailmakers in Cataumet near Buzzard’s Bay. It was made in India for Green Mountain Products, and is basically a white, mildewed rectangular tote with leather sewn around the handles and a ton of outside sleeves and pockets for easy access to tools and stuff. I use it a few times a year, when I need to splice lines, rig boats, or feel salty.

Last winter, at a local boat builders’ boatshow in Hyannis, I couldn’t resist picking up a new bag, one of the more clever conveyances I’ve ever seen. This is a Nantucket “Diddy Bagg“, The owner of the company was pretty enthusiastic and did a great demonstration of how the bag could be converted into nearly a dozen different configurations. I bought one on the spot, but have yet to do anything with it. It reminds me of that children’s book when the kangaroo needed more pockets and the man made her an apron with tons of little places to tuck stuff away. As they old timers said, “A place for everything and everything in its place.”

If I were really over the top and made a living as a rigger, my bag would have some esoteric tools like a seam rubber for creasing canvas, a wooden mallet and a caulking iron for laying oakum into seams, and a worm-and-parcel rig for covering manila hemp lines. There aren’t many riggers left who can do those old skills, but there is a small community of knot and marlinespike seamanship geeks online who share some interesting work and techniques. In a future post I’ll post a list of rigging suppliers, knot workers, and other marlinespike seamanship links that I’ve been stowing in my del.icio.us account. I’ve also started a new folder in my Google Reader of nautical blogs. More on that later too.

The Unfinished: David Foster Wallace

I just finished “The Unfinished“, D.T. Max’s piece in the Arts and Letters section of the March 9 New Yorker on the career and suicide of David Foster Wallace.

This is a great piece of writing about writing; a frightening, sad look at the loneliness of a sick genius left to his own thoughts and insecurities and the terror of a blank page. “Feeding my wastebasket,” Wallace wrote to his friends. Sitting in an airconditioned garage in Claremont, California with a 250,000 word manuscript of a novel, The Pale King, about the Internal Revenue Service, an exploration into the topic of boredom by a writer so brilliant that his style demanded a digressive pile of footnotes and endnotes to sustain the intellectual horsepower raging inside of him. Anyone who thinks the life of a writer is glamorous needs to read this tale of mental illness, brilliance, and heavy, grueling, lonely hard labor.

Wallace is significant in American writing in that he helped end the dry spell of spare realism inflicted on American literature in the late 1970s by editors such as Gordon Lish and writers such as Raymond Carver. Heavily influenced by Thomas Pynchon, Wallace took the post-modern reveries of Gravity’s Rainbow, John Barth, John Hawkes and Donald Barthleme and made literature emotional again, instilling in his great wordplay a philosophical intelligence (he wrote a book on infinity) picked up from another of his favorite influences, Don DeLillo. Wallace summed up the role of fiction is to show the world what is was to “be a fucking human being.”

Unfortunately, dead at age 46, he leaves the instruction manual unfinished.

Whereabouts week of 3.9

Cotuit for the duration, still recovering from schnoz surgery (doing great, still look raccoonish). Need to deal with mooring permits, recommissioning motorboat (may start that this weekend), 2009 taxes, and tons of work projects. Full-on March mud season now – snow giving way to mud, daffodils and tulips showing some activity, weeping willows starting to color in. Clocks change tonight.

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