Tidying my dunnage, the accumulation of a lifetime, I uncovered a small pamphlet from the Plymouth Rope Co. that first came to me when I was a merry youth with both mittens on one string. I fondled it as memories swelled. It tells how to tie knots. Not the knots Boy Scouts win badges by, but the very same knots applied to useful purposes, like getting an injured man off the mountain and reefing a stuns'l in a gale wind.
Capt. Julius Soule taught me to bend and splice, and as we had no Boy Scout troop close by in those barren days I did not know that each knot, as I learned it, should be laid out on a board, tacked down, and identified with a label. Cap'n Soule, retired from seafaring, told me it takes but three knots to serve about all the need you'll ever have. They are the reef knot, the bowline, and the clove hitch. The beauty of these three, he said is that they will come untied with a twitch, yet will hold to do their duty. I had to rely on Cap'n Soule, and it wasn't until many years later that I chanced to see a scoutmaster showing some youngsters the ropes.
For one thing, Cap'n Soule told me there aren't all that many ropes aboard a vessel. He said apprentice seamen are told they must "learn the ropes." Cap'n Soule said bosh. He recalled that there are but three ropes to learn. One is the hand rope, to which a sailor clings in a spurt of breeze or when aloft. The second is a foot rope on which he perches as needed. The third is the bell rope, yanked by the watch to announce the watches, two bells for each hour. A ship's bell never rang mechanically; they were rung by hand to prove that a wakeful mind was at the wheel. If the hour didn't strike, everybody shouted, "What was that?" and jumped to find out what was wrong.
The reef knot was our square knot. It was used to take up slack in the sails; the term that goes with it is "reef point." The reef knot is dependable at sea, but will come loose with a quick twitch if you know how to do it, and under stress at sea it is essential that a knot be quickly unmade.
The bowline, as everybody should know, is the queen of knots, something perfect that never will be done another way. It's a bight in the rope, fashioned quickly but easily, and it will hold until untied, never tightening within itself to become a "hard knot."
The clove hitch is a seafaring knot that came ashore. It was said to be the only knot (it's really a hitch) that every cowboy could tie in his sleep. Two quick loops, reversed against each other, and your pony will be there when you come back. Circus roustabouts would throw a clove hitch around a tent stake and take up the slack neatly. Oh, yes - when it starts to rain, loosen the clove hitch or the shrinking canvas will pull your tent stake out of the ground! Nothing is more aggervatin' than to lie in a tent listening to the musical raindrops and suddenly experience exposure because your tent has gone over into New Hampshire, stakes and all.
These three basic knots will serve a citizen in most instances, and now you "know your ropes."
Since seamen didn't use the word "rope" too much, you may wonder what they called rope. I suppose the best we can do for a starter is twine. The twine in a ship's rigging (and there was a great deal of it) was lumped as cordage, from six-thread warp up to the hawsers. The rope on an anchor was often called the string, and if an anchor had no string on it and the captain said to heave anchor, you hove. Do as you're told!
Netting used in fishing is twine. An old Grand Banks word for fishing line (or twine to be made into nets) is ganging (pronounced GAYN-jing). At Christmastime you can still hear "ganging" Down East when somebody wants string to tie a Christmas present.
I asked the late Ruth Moore, our novelist, why she kept writing "gaingeon" in her stories when she, of all people, knew very well it is "ganging." She said it was because the word "ganging" is lost. People who still use it have no idea how to spell it. So that readers would pronounce it right, she resorted to "gaingeon."
CAP'N SOULE told me a rope has three ends: one end, a standing end, and when you heave it overboard - that's the end of the rope. Twine that's used to make little caps, so girls working in a sardine plant won't leak hair into a can, is called snoodin' because the little net caps are snoods. Not often, but now and then, "snood" is a nickname for a Down East boy, but I don't know why.
Say "snoodin'," not "snooding." The only "ing" word you don't clip is "ceiling," the finish inside a boat. It's always ceiling, but if you mean hunting a seal, it's sealin'. (Sometimes I wonder if talking Yankee is worth the bother.) To parcel a rope end so it won't ravel, use parcelin', a small twine (ganging).
Other nautical words for rope are halyard, sheet, line, painter, and some I can't spell. Old-time hemp rope used to have a strand of a different color to identify the maker. It was called the "rogues' yarn." To make rope you "walk." A ropemaker is a rope-walker, and Ben Franklin had Poor Richard observe that they walk backward half the time. It was said rope-walkers went backward to church on Sunday, but walked home frontward. Ropes today are made of synthetics and are called ropes. This is much less puzzling than the old way, when they were not.