June 4, 2009

Snobby yachtie knottery

MIKE REED, A KNOWLEDGEABLE friend of mine, walked up to my boat the other day and inspected the main halyard. “Isn’t that a buntline hitch?” he said.

“Oh yes,” I said quickly. “How clever of you to know that.”

As a matter of fact, at that time I couldn’t have told you the difference between a buntline hitch and a cow’s backside. When I looked at the way I’d tied the halyard to the metal clip, it looked as if I’d tied a clove hitch backwards by accident. Anyway, I now know what a buntline hitch is and I have added it to my vast repertoire of useful knots for yachts.

A few nights later I was manning a table at a meeting of our Corinthian yacht club. The subject for the evening was knots, and several of us were demonstrating individual knots, the ones most used on small sailboats.

I was given the sheet bend to demonstrate. It’s a knot I don’t trust to stay in place, so I wasn’t too thrilled to be delegated the sheet bend, although I’m told it’s one of the first knots described in The Ashley Book of Knots, that massive tome of knottery that I’ve never been able to afford. But at least I know how to do the sheet bend and to warn people to make sure both free ends stick out on the same side.

I needn’t have worried about being forced to recommend a knot I wasn’t too happy with. Only two people came to my table to enquire after the sheet bend, and I warned both of them to do a double sheet bend instead. The others all came along to watch me do my famous “instant bowline,” a trick that makes a non-slip loop in the end of a line with two flicks of the wrist. It’s not actually a true bowline, but it’s pretty close, and those who are mesmerized by the action of creating it never seem to examine its construction too closely.

All this got me to thinking about the snobbery of yachtie knottery and how few knots you really need. One of my favorite books, A Manual for Small Yachts, by R. D. Graham and J. E. H. Tew (Blackie, London, 1946) is quite adamant that only nine knots are essential: overhand knot, reef knot, figure-of-eight knot, clove hitch, rolling hitch, round turn and two half-hitches, fisherman’s (or anchor) bend, sheet bend, and the bowline.

I would knock the overhand knot off that list and substitute a double sheet bend for the single sheet bend. Otherwise, I have to agree. But, in fact, if you are not a natural knot nut, and have trouble understanding those diagrams that show strands weaving themselves over and under and around and behind and all over until they finally disappear up their own fundamental orifices, then I think you’ll be relieved to hear that you can probably do almost everything you need to on a boat with just two knots, two hitches, and one bend — five in all:

► Anchor (or fisherman’s) bend
► Reef knot
► Bowline
► Rolling hitch
► Clove hitch

Finally, if you really are severely knot-challenged, a confirmed fumbler from way back, and would just like to get one knot right every time, practice the round turn and two half hitches. It’s actually two round turns and two half hitches, but don’t let that put you off. There’s hardly anything you can’t do with that knot. It might look a bit bulky and inappropriate for some applications, but it’s safe, it’s sure, and nobody’s going to accuse you of being a knot snob.

Today’s Thought
O Time, thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me t’untie.
—Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

“I’ve just sold my second novel.”
“Great! What did you use for the plot?”
“The film version of my first novel.”

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