April 27, 2014

When a rope IS a rope

ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS that newcomers to sailing learn from the old tars is that rope is never rope once it comes aboard a boat. It’s line.

Well, that’s not exactly true. There were many ropes on the old sailing ships, such as footropes, boltropes, tiller ropes, and others. What’s more, the font of nautical knowledge that I most admire, The Encyclopedia of Nautical Knowledge (Cornell Maritime Press) says this about rope:

“In marine use, rope is the general term for cordage composed of strands and, as a rule, larger than one inch in circumference.” That’s a little over one-third inch in diameter. “Smaller cordage, including boat-lacing, houseline, roundline, samsonline, wire lanyard, and aerial wire, though rope in the manufacturing sense, usually is covered by the term small stuff.

The encyclopedia adds that “special rope, such as the left-hand-laid lead-line stuff, is always called line.”

So don’t feel inadequate if some know-all calls you out for referring to a line as a rope. Refer him to the encyclopedia instead.

Incidentally, the book also says that “in rope-making, the general principle of spinning the yarns comprising each strand in a direction contrary to their lay in the twisted strand, and the latter laid to form the rope with the same twist as in the yarns, has been adhered to for centuries. While it is apparent that the twisted strands allow for an uneven distribution of stress in a rope, in that the heart yarns bear the brunt of a pull before the other yards, this disadvantage is more than balanced by the generally desirable quality of flexibility, particularly when the rope is wet.”

Rope-making has advanced considerably since those words were written, of course, and we now have more exotic materials and a greater choice of weaves. But a rope is still a rope, for all that.

 Today’s Thought
And were it not that they are loath to lay out money on a rope, they would be hanged forthwith, and sometimes die to save charges.
— Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

Tailpiece The little wren of tender mind To every other bird is kind. It ne’er to mischief bends its will … (So good. So dull. It makes me ill.)

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

Don P said...

Just for further extrapolation.A few years ago I was researching a "cable" across the entrance to a harbour in the 1600s to keep enemy ships out. Thinking that seemed early for steel wire I discovered that a fibre rope became a "hawser" when it was more than 5 inches in circumference and a "cable" when over 10 inches in circumference. Since wire rope was invented in the nineteenth century and then electricity came on the scene, the original meaning of the word "cable" has been almost completely usurped.