December 5, 2010

Knives save lives

I HAVE LONG BELIEVED that people whose lives depend on rope should always have a sharp knife at hand. The more you sail, the more you realize the need for a knife. That need doesn’t arise often, thank goodness, but the occasions when it does are usually characterized by strong winds, heavy seas, threatening rocks, and a crew paralyzed with panic.

The kind of knife I’m referring to must be capable of slicing quickly through the largest rope on your boat. That may be the anchor line, a halyard, a sheet, or even the dinghy painter. If you have ever seen a crewmember pinned against the cockpit bulkhead by a mainsheet across the neck after a sudden jibe, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And if you’ve ever got a finger caught around a winch while trying to free an override of the genoa sheet in a surprise squall, you’ll appreciate the need for fast relief.

The only question, really, is what kind of knife; and where do you keep it?

My preference is for a fixed-blade sheath knife worn on your belt, so that it always goes with you. It can be a nuisance sometimes, I know, when it catches on the lifelines or something, but it’s worth the bother. The blade should be as long as practical, even if it’s illegal ashore, but nothing less than 3 1/2 inches.

I have never figured out whether it’s better to have a plain, hollow-cut edge or a serrated edge. I think the knife manufacturers are still trying to work this one out, too, because many of them offer blades that are partly serrated and part plain knife-edge.

I remember Jerry Powlas, technical editor of Good Old Boat, saying that a serrated edge was good only for bread knives, but there are many who swear by the fast cutting power of a serrated edge. And if you buy a blade that’s half serrated and half plain, how can you go wrong? I believe that Jerry’s main objection was that he found it impossible to sharpen a serrated edge to the same razor sharpness he creates on his ordinary blades.

If you can’t wear a sheath knife on your belt for some reason, then find a good place in the cockpit where you can keep a fixed-blade knife, somewhere that is readily accessible day and night.

You might also want to keep in your pocket a small rigger’s or yachtsman’s knife, one of those with a folding knife blade, a marline spike, and (very important) a beer bottle opener. Alternatively, you could have a Leatherman-type multi-tool with a small knife blade and a pair of pliers that can open shackles, as can the spike on the rigger’s knife. But these knife blades are only second-best in an emergency. It takes time to find them and it’s fiddly to open them, and you might have only one hand available anyhow. And even when they’re finally open and ready for business, they really are quite puny for the job, compared with a big robust sheath knife. They are, however, infinitely better than nothing.

There is one fairly frequent situation where a good cutting knife is called for, and that’s when you get a rope or fishing net around the propeller shaft. I would hesitate to use an expensive sheath knife for this because you’re bound to blunt the knife against the metal shaft, and I have often thought that some kind of hacksaw blade with a decent handle would be better for the job and a lot cheaper.

Finally, if you’re looking for a nice Christmas present for a sailor, a knife might be a good choice. If you Google the names Gerber, Myerchin, and Spyderco you’ll find some very modern designs made expressly for cutting rope in a hurry. You’ll also notice that the purchase prices of the more exotic models are such that you might well be tempted to investigate my hacksaw-blade idea with justifiable fervor.

Today’s Thought
To each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass and a book of rules,
And each must make, ere life is flown,
A stumbling-block or a stepping stone.
— R. L. Sharpe

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #129
Cruising drop-outs. The success rate among people who set sail for a planned cruise of 6 to 18 months is only 35 to 40 percent. That’s according to Lin and Larry Pardey, well known cruisers and authors, after they’d been cruising for 14 years. Their definition of “success” was: “Finding satisfaction or enjoyment from what you are doing; having a sense of harmony on board; feeling glad you had the experience; eager to continue or go off again.”

“I need a new dipstick for my car please.”
“But the old one must still be there, madam.”
“Yeah, sure, but it doesn’t reach the oil any more.”

(Come back every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Anonymous said...

Hi John,
There's a superstition that a gift of a knife is bad luck and will sever the friendship. If you give a knife to a sailing friend tape a coin to the package for them to give back in "payment" for the knife.
I know,it's probably nonsense but as a fervent adherent of your Black Box Theory I don't push my luck.
By the way, Love your work.
Don P

John Vigor said...

Good point, Don. I'd forgotten about that. Thanks for reminding us.


John V.

Anonymous said...

The cheap, $4 Victorinox utility knives are the best value out there, bar none. They easily outperform far more expensive knives and at $4/each, you can just buy news one instead of sharpening them. Get the serrated kind - in an emergency, you don't care what the cut looks like, and synthetic lines are much easier to cut with a serrated knife than a straight blade.

Ken said...

Not sure what they are other than cheap and long lasting.
Blue plastic molded handle around a stainless steel lightly serrated blade. There is a K symbol on the blade and the plastic sheath.

The boatyard bought them by the box and handed them out to everyone. Every bench and boat had one. I still have one on my workbench that has been cutting cardboard and any and all other things for years.

Dennis @ Marine Electronics said...

Makes perfect sense to me to have a very sharp knife on board with you at all times. You can think of it like a tool. After all what would a screw be without a screw driver? The same principle applies here.

Anonymous said...

Forschener 3-1/4" WAVY BLACK 881W
SKU: FOR40509 at Seattle Marine

Fisheries biologist for WDFW - I keep several of these at key locations around my research boat. They'll go through pretty much anything in a hurry - including your fingers.

Boat Accessories said...

Well said John, Keeping a knife is must for any sailor. Sailors never know when he needs it and knife can be used as a tool as well as for protection too. Keep posting more post.