'Til the butter melts

Pursuing the cruising dream in 32' of sailing ketch


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Learning the Ropes

Most likely you’ve all heard the phrase “Learning the ropes” – meaning someone is new in a task or job, and is learning how everything works and where everything goes.  But possibly many of you don’t know the origin of that saying.  Like so many, it’s origin is nautical.

Sailing vessels have lines. LOTS of lines. (As an aside, there are no “ropes” on a boat. Except in the case of this one phrase, they are all properly referred to as “lines” – please don’t ask me why, as I may start to whimper softly…)

Naturally the larger and the more complex the vessel, the more lines she’ll have, both to hold everything up and together, and to control the rig, sails, ground tackle, etc.  How many?A veritable forest!


Now the interesting thing about a traditionally rigged schooner like the Isaac H. Evans (on which vessel Nicki and I are serving as relief crew this summer) is that there’s a line for darn near everything you can imagine. Because of her age, (she was built in 1886)  there are very few cables, (called “wire rope” in sailing boats). My mental inventory counts just 22 of them, but a mind-boggling plethora of lines to hold everything together and make it move.  I’m not going to try to count – trust me, there are hundreds.

This photo at left gives an idea. This is the starboard fore-mast rail. Those black lines in multiples of 6 are the dead-eyes and lanyards that apply tension to each of the three stays (or shrouds) which hold the foremast up, keeping it from bending 

to port as we’re sailing with the wind on the starboard (right) side of the boat. The shrouds themselves are wire, everything else is wood or line.

To the right, we have the starboard mainmast rail. You can see the dead-eye and lanyard sets, and below that, the pinrail (built into the boat’s rail, in this case. Sometimes it’s separate.)

The first line (left in this photo) is the centerboard line, made off on it’s pin. The next back is the Mains’l peak halyard, the Mains’l lazyjack, another I’m not sure of (I’m still learning the ropes!), and farthest aft, the “Bit”.  
Still with me? I hope so, because there are four stations like this on the Evans (being a two-masted schooner), they all look this complicated, and NOTHING IS LABELED!   Well, almost.

I was into my 8th day working aboard when I suddenly realized that the halyards for the main, fores’l and main-tops’l are always made off to pins that are made of bronze.  And those are the only bronze pins on the boat. A light came on!


Though the light isn’t great in this picture of the port foremast rail, you can about make out that the far-left (aft) pin is dark wood, the one next to it (with darker line attached) is bronze, the next is reddish wood (I’m guessing red oak?), and the one after that is stained dark – perhaps white oak?  I’m starting to see a pattern.  

Oh, and all those lines? Here’s my test!  Left to right, they are:  I don’t know yet; Foremast peak halyard; Stays’l halyard; Bailey; and finally port lifeline (on the cleat).  That large line lying on deck to the far right of the photo is the port jib sheet.

The reward for all this new knowledge is, of course, the chance to be part of the team that makes her go and keeps her sound.  That’s owner and Captain Brenda “Cappy” Thomas at the wheel, former owner and fix-it man extraordinaire Captain Ed Glaser, accomplished sailor and friend Meriel, and First Mate of the highest order, Autumn Simpson, here relaxing under sail after what was – honestly, a bit of a tense morning, equipment-wise. 

For Nicki & me, it’s fun and challenging and interesting to be back in a “Crew” position  after spending 8 1/2 months aboard our own boat, very much in “Captain & Owner” mode. We do what we’re told as best we can, ask a ton of questions, and jump when we’re told to jump – even at 2:15am…

But that’s a story for a different day.