Knotty, Naughty

Via Neptunus Lex, comes a disturbing story about the low quality of marlinspike seamanship in today’s Navy. You’ll have to follow the link to gCaptain to see the whole story, but in a nutshell, the Boatswain’s Mates of the Deck Division of the USS Howard managed to so screw up setting the Jacob’s Ladder for bringing aboard a pilot to enter harbor that they damn near lost him in the drink. Unacceptable.

I’m not a sailor of the US Navy. But from Cub Scouts, through Sea Scouts, the US Army, and my own hobby of climbing and rappelling, I’ve learned to tie a pretty decent knot. Not just enough to bet the pilot’s life on it. I’ll bet my own, and have done so hundreds of times.

I’ll admit, I could never splice worth a damn. The times I tried it, it came out ugly.  But I can tie a bowline like nobody’s fool, and half hitches, clove hitches, square knots and timber hitches may be done in my sleep. Heck, with a few minutes refresher, I could relearn to tie another dozen or so knots. But if you know the bowline, half hitch, square knot and clove hitch, you won’t come across to many problems you can’t solve, knot wise.

As a Sergeant, knot tying was one of those quick classes I kept in my hip pocket to teach my squad when previously planned training evolutions fell through. Even in mechanized units, where the likelihood of climbing or rappelling was vanishingly small, a level of knot tying skill was always handy. Heck, just teaching the crew a good way to tie a tarp over the Bradley was worth the effort.

When I was  a recruiter, my buddy SGT S and I took his boat out on Lake Michigan one day. On a lark, we decided to visit the local Coast Guard station where an acquaintance of his worked. After a tour of the station, SGT S’s friend convinced the station’s XO to take us out for a brief spin on the 41’ boat “for familiarization training.” 

The Coasties were a bit astonished to learn that an Army grunt and an Army mechanic were well versed in how to properly fasten a line from shore onto a cleat. And turned out to be not bad small-boat handlers as well.

As one of the commenters at Lex’s points out:

There is a reason some things are called “basics.” If you have them you can’t go far wrong. If you don’t have them you can’t do much right.

In the Army, the basics are “Shoot, Move, Communicate.” Let us hope the Army hasn’t strayed as far from its core competencies as some folks in the Navy apparently have.

13 thoughts on “Knotty, Naughty”

  1. If you want to talk about tying knots, there was a real authority on the subject, my grandfather. To understand him, you need a little history, he was born during the Civil War. He sailed on the old-fashioned sailing ships with masts and sails. This one day, my father took me over to my grandfather’s house. He took a perfectly coiled rope, with a block and tackle. He said, “Boy, you know how to set up a block and tackle, set this one up.” Well, the rope was a little old and too perfectly coiled. As the saying goes, “I’m starting to smell something rotten in Denmark.” I am beginning to understand what this old man has done. He has done a perfect splice, I can’t find that thing. I figure, it is time for this boy to get real stupid, with the liberal dosage of stubbornness. I tell him, “I forgot how to do it, why don’t you show me?” He tried everything he could, could get me started. When I refused, he knew that I caught him and he broke out laughing with my father. I had the greatest respect for him, he could do everything from making and repairing fishnets to knitting with more than 4 needles. As the saying goes, “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is, (NOT)!” He was a really neat old character.

  2. For some reason, I am reminded of the joke we used to play on the new guys. In The Old Guard, it is all about uniform appearance. We would tell the new guys that their blue infantry cord was dirty and needed to be cleaned, so they would untie and unweave the entire cord, then go wash it. None of them was ever able to successully re-create a blue infantryman’s shoulder cord from the newly-clean piece of blue string they now had.

  3. Marlinespike Seamanship truly is becoming a lost art. I’ve had newhire deckhands fresh out of the service that have trouble tying a bowline, let alone knowing how to splice. And I’m talking simple splices in 3 strand. Forget about wire rope or any of the 8 or 12 strand varieties of line. Makes this old ex-BM hang his head in shame. Truly though, it isn’t just the armed services that have issues with the basics, but I have noticed the difference between the knowledge base of ex USN/USCG members we hire lately vs. those we would hire years ago that had deck experience in the service.

  4. I learned to back and eye splice in Woodbadge in Boy Scouts. It was neat to show an experienced rigger, who had nearly forgotten how to eye splice how to do it. I haven’t done it since 1990, but I supposed I could pick it back up fairly quickly.

    I wasn’t on the deck force, but I was expected to be able to tie certain knots regardless. Seems the Navy is losing more than just the warrior society ideal, but the ideal of being a sailor at all. It’s truly shameful.

  5. I am a champion marlinspikeR, and have awards to prove it. And I was taught by civilians, as a teenager, long ago using the old fashioned but perfect method — practice.

  6. The important thing to remember is this in talking about a splice, are we talking about a single or double braid? They are not interchangeable.

    My Grandfather made a flat Turk’s head knot, that my Grandmother would use as a cover for a small table.

    1. Depends on what kind of knots you are looking to improve upon. For the basics, an old copy of the Sea Exploring Manual, the USN’s Bluejackets’ Manual, The American Merchant Seaman’s Manual or The Annapolis Book of Seamanship. If you are looking for info on splicing wire rope, I would recommend American Merchant Seaman’s Manual and The Rigger’s Apprentice by Brian Toss. If you are looking for the end-all, be-all book of knots, the bible that people swear by, then you want Ashley’s Book of Knots. When you start talking about splicing high performance lines such as 6, 8 or 12 strand braids, then you would want to get the info straight from the manufacturer, usually available online.

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