Marlinspike Seamanship

A Close View of a Traditional Cylindrical Layered Rope Knotwork Fender on a Tugboat.
Traditional Rope Fenders Still Used on Tugboats. PJ Bruno


Over the past four hundred years the lines and rigging aboard a vessel were the literal and figurative engines of commerce. Today the lines and wires we use require new techniques and now the term marlinspike seamanship encompasses many more materials.

On most vessels lines still play an important part in everyday operations. Every sailor must be able to tie some simple knots like a Bowline or Hitch and many old salts will tell you that you should be able to tie several knots with one hand in the dark.

That's not a joke; think about it.

There is a lot of large gauge twisted line out there and that's the material for many knots and splices. We also need to work with smaller braided line and cord in housekeeping situations. There can be plenty of downtime on a ship so knot work can also become a profitable pastime if the work is fine enough for sale.

The ability to rework a common base material into useful forms is valuable if it is for commerce or to replace a lost item in short order. Items like fenders can be made that are much more useful and attractive than inflatable fenders. A rope fender will never deflate, pop, or crack like an inflatable.

So marlinspike seamanship itself can take many forms. Although many discount quality knot work as a decorative skill or not useful in the modern industry there are plenty of vessels out there with plenty of durable and cheap knot work.

There are a few basic functions that all seafarers should know.

Care of Ropes and Lines

This is super basic but not everyone knows how quickly lack of care will destroy rope. Rope should be kept clean and dry at all times and if used in dirty or wet conditions, which is all the time on a ship, it needs to be cleaned before storage.

In the time of natural fibers the enemy was gritty dirt and sand that worked it's way deep into the twist where it cut small fibers one by one.

Today that is also an issue but add oil and grease to the problem when talking about synthetic ropes.

Splices and Ends

Making lines shorter and longer is an essential rope working skill. Splices let you join two ends semi-permanently by weaving the fibers back and forth until they intertwine and bind tight.

Management of cut ends is also important to minimize loss from unraveling. This can be accomplished with a dip which is like heavy paint or by whipping the rope ends. Whipping consists of winding waxed thread around a rope end to hold it together.

Synthetic ropes can be cut cleanly and sealed at the same time with a heated electric cutting knife.

Knots are important too and knowing many knots is valuable knowledge when you arrive on a new vessel. Sailors have exchanged knots since the beginning and a unseen knot is very valuable when only one sailor knows its construction.

Learning Knots and Splices

There are many ways to lean knotting these days. There are books that will teach you a hundred common knots and you can even get knot tying lessons on your smartphone.

The best book by far on the subject is "Ashley's Book of Knots". Mr. Ashely was a young boy on the Northeast coast of the U.S. as whaling was fading and petroleum started to flow.

The book was written in the 1940's but it tells a little story and some history with each of it's 4000 knots, splices, and other amazing items. The diagrams take some concentration to follow but the somewhat narrative story gives first hand knowledge of a huge range of historic ship operations and knot work in the past several hundred years.

Many of the knots and other items in the book are still surprisingly useful and every ship library should have at least one copy.