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.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

6 thoughts on “Ditty Bags”

  1. When I was in Navy bootcamp (1996), the ditty bag was used for toting the shower essentials. The first day, when all us girls were packing our ditty bags for the first time, the bags could not fit all the stuff we thought were essential. By the end of the first week the ditty bags suddenly had lots of extra room. We had ditched all the newly discovered non-essentials.

    I still have a few modern ditty bags in the form of plastic boxes. I actually have tons of them… and each one is fun of essentials!

  2. Worm and parcel — ah yes; I suspect we are the only two people in this time zone who know what that is. Unfortunately, I don’t own a ditty bag, even though I used to do that stuff for a living before I dicovered the joys of sitting on one’s butt in a cubicle all day. As for nautical preparations, my first job this spring is to replace the trailer’s bearings, so the boat sits undisturbed under its silver plastic tarp. Besides, I have discovered the World Baseball Classic on ESPN, and for a baseball fan, that’s pretty good stuff.

  3. I got to thinking about the “worm and parcel” thing and recalled there is a third activity, called “serving,” as in worm, parcel, and serve. All this to prevent chafing. When serving, riggers used a wooden tool that looks like a small mallet with a concave serction that allows one to keep a good strain on the line being wrapped around the canvas. For the life of me I can’t recall what that tool is called.

    You mention the smell of marline. When I was a kid, we bottom fished with handlines constructed from tarred cotton line, light brown in color, that smelled wonderful. I suspect it is the same smell as the marline.

  4. Charlie — we’re talking the same stuff in marline. I believe it came from Italy, and yep, it was the stuff we used on droplines — those wooden frames wrapped with tarred line.

  5. So that”s what the stuff on he drop lines of childhoods on Catalina is called. It was on Catalinsa that i lwearned an important life lesson, catching a yllowtail hittting a drop line on its way down is a good way to end up with seven stitches on the side of your hand. And, never ever wrap a drop line around your thumb if you think there are fast game fish around. My dad and my Uncle laugfed their asses off at “Little Jimmy” because I wouldn’t let go of the line or its frame. I still have some of my dad’s sail tools in a small wooden chest in my attic: a marlin spike, his pocket knife, sail needles, Wax, brass eye holes and a brass hammer and portable eye socket for setting the holes.
    thanks for the post Dave.Today, a mix of smells– Sea and SKi suntan lotion, hot diesel, beach sand and tar– ytigger the most vivid and enjoyable memories of my Dad. he’s been gone 51 years but I still think of him whenever I’m on the water.


  6. As a kid, I remember Dake Henderson’s ditty bag had some more combustible items along w/ the usual seamanship sundries!

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