Why Sailors are Highly Strung

17 Mar

Show me a boat that doesn’t have a bag of assorted offcuts of sheet, halyard, warp and string buried in a cockpit locker, and I’ll show you a powerboat. It’s impossible to separate sailing from rope, and I don’t know why you’d want to. Separating sailors from rope can be nearly impossible too. Rummaging around at the bottom of other people’s lazarettes, I’ve more than once dredged up some scruffy, diesel-stained, ratty bundle of rock-hard ancient anchor warp or a prehistoric genoa sheet that’s fossilized into the form of a nightmare pretzel. “Ah,” the owner says sheepishly, “Thought that might come in handy one day.”

I’ve seen people running up spanking new halyards at launching time, then carefully flaking the salt-stiffened, chafed old ones and stowing them in some dark cavity on board, just in case. I’ve seen grown men walk down a dock to throw out threadbare mooring warps and return in triumph bearing enough coils of someone else’s castoffs to re-rig a small schooner.

One weekend I was moored at a marina where several very large and serious racing boats were being prepped for a major regatta, a process that obviously involved the replacement of every line on board each of them. By Sunday night a score of small and dowdy cruising boats were sporting gaudy purple Kevlar mooring warps, iridescent orange-flecked Spectra sheets and neat cheeses of black-and-green carbon halyards, and their owners were hovering inconspicuously near the dumpster waiting to see what other manna would fall from these heavenly boats; a western version of the cargo cult.

I think it’s a sailor’s desire for redundancy, the need always to have a backup in case something breaks, that’s behind this love affair with rope. My wife thinks it’s a male packrat thing, but that’s not strictly true. Most people have no trouble throwing away a shackle that’s lost its pin, or a rusted-out fridge compressor, so why is that forty feet of double-braid, with the core peeking through its cover every three feet, is so hard to part with? Why can’t we be honest and admit from the outset that this old rope will in fact never come in handy, except maybe for lashing something to the roof of a car?

Oddly enough, even though everyone but the most self-disciplined of boat owners has a secret stash of old rope somewhere on board, no one ever seems to have any of the 1/8in or 1/16in small stuff lying around. That’s the kind of line that really comes in handy, for all sorts of reasons. Not only can you lash things together with it, but you can whip up some dandy turk’s heads to decorate the tiller end or the wheel’s king spoke. Try doing that with those 20 fathoms of mutilated nylon lying in the dumpster.


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