May 15, 2016

A knife could save your life

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 gotten a finger caught around a winch while trying to free an override in 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 magazine, 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, or even a few wraps of duct tape, would be better for the job and a lot cheaper.

Finally, if you’re looking for a nice 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

“I need a new dipstick for my car, please.”
“But surely the old one is still there, madam.”
“Yes, yes, my good man — but it doesn’t reach the oil any more.”

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


Stevet said...

Hey John, the local chandlery sails very sharp bait knives for about $5. Good candidate to have lying in your toolbox for dealing with lines round the prop...

Willy Vandeverre said...

John, you have left off the most important aspect. attach a small rope wrist line to the knife, which would stop the knife going overboard should you drop it in the process of working. All my yacht knives have this addition. Slip your hand through the rope lanyard and grip the knife. should you open your hand, the knife will hang from the lanyard. Kind Regards, Willy Vandeverre

John Vigor said...

Thanks for reminding me, Willy. I always attach a lanyard the full length of my arm.
John V.

Mike K said...

Your tailpiece reminds me of an incident from my childhood. My dad owned a garage/petrol station and I used to pump gas after school and on weekends for pocket money. One day a lady drove in with a big late 1960's/early 70's Daimler/Jaguar with the V12 engine. After I had poured vast quantities of petrol into it's (2) fuel tanks, she asked if I would check the oil as she couldn't remember if it had been looked at recently. I located the dipstick but it didn't seem to show anything. I poured in 2 litres, still nothing. Starting to sweat in case I had misidentified the oil sump dipstick and filler cap for some other unknown lubricant orifice I went and got my father. No, that was the oil filler and dipstick all right. Another 4 litres of oil went in before the end of the dipstick picked up a trace of oil. I seem to recall we put in a total of around 12 litres to fill it. I never did find out how much they took from empty but it can't have been far from it.