Oh, what a tangle we weave

A sailboat on one level is an intricate system of ropes, though almost none of them is called that. This ropiness calls attention to itself when you confront in May a boat you hauled out of the water in October.

The mast is lashed to the boat, as is much of the rigging, along with gas tanks and seat cushions and other gear, and the whole business is secured to a trailer. Ropes everywhere. Lots of knots.

Undoing it all for spring cleaning brings you face to face with the repertoire of knots you employed back when. A true knot can be easily untied, even after a winter of being exposed to the elements. The other kind, the bad kind, is called a granny.

There's a respectable bowline here, some proper half-hitches there and some embarrassing grannies I was guilty of at the end of an autumn afternoon scraping the algae off the hull as the wind howled.

Some things you're about as likely to do as improve on Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. I've always wished I were a great singer. And that I could run really fast. Not in this lifetime.

But abilities that would seem to lie within our reach continue to elude us, as well. For me, being competent with ropes and knots is a prime example.

My father, who taught seamanship in the War, taught me to tie a bowline (BO-lun) and taught me that you don't know a knot until you can tie it in the dark. I learned the bowline, though not the mnemonic story about the rabbit and the tree and the hole.

At 18, through foolishness, I found myself clinging to the side of a cliff 100 feet up and unable to advance or retreat. My buddy Dave saw my predicament from below, took a safe route to the top, returned with some guys in a pickup and tossed down a rope. I passed the bitter end under my armpits and tied a bowline and walked up the cliff as my rescuers hauled. That's a good knot.

I am embarrassed to find square knots on the boat. The Old Man taught me the square knot, or reef knot, too. But if you're not sailing a square-rigger or mailing lots of parcels, it's pretty much devoid of any redeeming significance.

It was used by sailors to reef sails, that is, tie them at reefing points to yards or spars to reduce sail in a strong wind. Reefing gave its name to the knot, and probably to the marijuana joint, which resembles a fully reefed sail on a square-rigger's yard.

But the square knot is treacherous and in constant danger of failing if it's bumped or is not kept under tension. The author and sailor Clifford Ashley, who was to knots what Child was to ballads, wrote that it was OK for furling sails or tying parcels, but added:

"There have probably been more lives lost as a result of using a square knot as a bend (tying two ropes together) than from the failure of any other half-dozen knots combined."

What I do not find is a clove hitch, which could have been used to secure a sailboat's mast instead of the awkward loops I've thrown around it. Nor do I find a sheet bend, a knot for joining two ropes together when you need to count on the connection, unlike that wretched square knot.

I vow to run clove hitches to the mast this fall, and that if any rope needs to be fastened to another to use a sheet bend, preferably a doubled sheet bend.

Still, the mast didn't fall off the boat, and the boat didn't fall off the trailer. I was able to untangle and untie everything without actually cutting any rope. Once again sailing is a metaphor for life. Somehow, we muddle through.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

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