A splicing lesson from great-aunts avoids the temptation of cheap and nasty floating lines
There has been a small but interesting scandal lately, involving those manoverboard rescue gadgets that take the form of weighted slings attached to your boat by a length of floating line.
The line on the cheap ones is not, by all accounts, one continuous length of rope on to which the casualty can latch so he can be hauled aboard. It is a whole bunch of short lengths of offcuts, welded together with a soldering iron by some oppressed soul in a back alley in Guangdong, and unable to support the weight of a baby, let alone a person who has tripped over his Dubarrys after consuming four Fray Bentos pies and a gallon of fine wines.
This leads one to think (though not as hard as the casualty will be thinking about his cheapskate instincts while the boat shrinks among the swells). If you want to combine economy with reliability, you have got to do your own ropework. Ask any climber.
My own ropework teachers were some great-aunts who glowered at me through their pipe smoke as my infant hands fumbled with an eyesplice. It was all three-strand then, except when it was four. The aunts pointed out that knots were very good, but splices were even better, because they did not force rope to go round tight corners, and left it with much of its original strength. (The aunts had survived, like the rope in their hands, by never having agreed to go anywhere they did not want to go in the first place). A bowline, they said, just about halves the strength of a line, whereas an eyesplice reduces it by only 5%. The only non-good splices were long splices, which were slim enough to go through blocks but which were weakish. Yes, yes, we nodded, delighted, because long splices were next to impossible. And on we spliced, over one, under one, working our way round the strands in succession.
There was much about splicing highly amusing to the infant mind. The names, for one thing. A back splice, dead easy once you mastered the crown knot, was (hilariously) a dog’s dick. The splice which joined two lengths of rope leaving a, well, buttonhole-shaped loop between the joins, was practically hysterical. In the #metoo era it is known as a cut splice. At that time it bore a name that has made the well-known town of Scunthorpe unGoogleable when parental guidance is enabled. How we roared, first with laughter, then with pain at the clip on the ear, and finally with hunger when locked in our rooms on bread and water.
Well, we got out of our rooms, and rigged our boats, and went to sea. And then some creep turned up with a strangely-confected string called braidline, and the day of over-one-under-one was past and gone, and we were in a muddle. Not only were we expected to do mathematically impossible things with inner lines and covers, we had to buy a whole new set of tools.
So we sat down to learn. YouTube takes care of the instructions, particularly the Marlowbraids filmettes, which are civil and practical and delivered by sharp young riggers who make it look easy (it isn’t). The tools are available on ebay and from chandlers, and are in the case of fids ludicrously expensive. They are also available from knitting shops; an acceptable fid can be made from a hollow knitting needle, and a small emergency version from the wife’s vape stick if you can prise it from her grasp.
Once the braid-on-braid splicing bug has got you, the sky is more or less the limit, and it is only a matter of time before you get mixed up with the soft shackle movement, positively evangelical in its intensity. If you buy the ready-made ones on ebay, they may easily fall from aloft like the gentle rain from heaven; so make your own. Say goodbye to stainless steel horseshoes at a fiver a pop. Say hello to a cheap soft loop of Dyneema, fine and silvery as Rapunzel’s hair and spliceable with a biro tube into something you can lift a tractor with. It is technical stuff, but it is not all technology; because the stop knot on the shackle is a diamond knot, an intricate bobble of crossing strands used on knife-lanyards in the square-rig days. And also, as it happens, by the great-aunts who taught us how to splice in the first place. What comes around goes around, and there is nothing new under the sun. Over one, under one. Where's me fid?
‘If you want to combine economy with reliability, you have got to do your own ropework’
Great-aunts were Sam Llewellyn’s splicing mentors