Tag Archives: sailor

A Day in the Life: Marlinspike Seamanship

Brig Lady Washington (left) and Hawaiian Chief...
Image via Wikipedia

Imagine that you’re on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean. You feel the sun beating down, and the gentle sway of the vessel in the water. You turn your face to try to feel the direction of the wind, but there is no wind. Not even a breeze. You hear the creaking of the masts and the gentle lapping of the water on the hull, but you are dead in the water.

There’s no telling when the wind will pick up again; it could be several days. In the meantime, what will you do? The year is 1854, and you are a topman aboard a merchant vessel bound for some Pacific Island. You can’t pass the time by reading, because you don’t know how to read; you don’t feel like singing at the moment, and you can’t whistle because you are superstitiously worried about whistling up an ill wind.

What’s a sailor to do?


There’s always plenty to be done to keep the ship in top condition. There are sails to be mended, lines and rigging to be repaired, old rope to be turned into baggywrinkle, decks to scrub and tar… the list goes on and on. However, when that “Sailor-Do” list is completed, what’s next?


Have you ever seen a particularly handsome bell rope and wondered, “How on earth did they make that?” Or how about a boat’s ladder (stairsteps) all decked out with ornamental ropework? It’s not strictly ornamental, after all. On the ladder, for example, it serves as a nonskid surface for climbing around in your wet boat shoes. There’s a  name for this combination of form and function: it’s called Marlinspike Seamanship, and it’s not exactly a lost art. (The work below, coxcombing on tillers, was done by Frayed Knot Arts.)

Fancy Knotwork by Frayed Knot Arts: Cockscombing on Tillers
©Frayed Knot Arts (www.frayedknotarts.com)


The next time you have an opportunity to get up close and personal with a sailboat (or even see one in a movie), look for examples of Marlinspike fancy work. It’s all done by hand, and it’s a tradition worth carrying on.

If you’re in the Morro Bay/San Luis Obispo/Central Coast area of California and you’d like to participate in a Marlinspike workshop, leave a note in the comments below. We’ll let you know when we have one coming up!


Also, check out these books (click the covers to see them on Amazon):

Click to purchase the Sailmakers Apprentice on Amazon.Click to purchase the Arts of the Sailor on AmazonClick to purchase the Marlinspike Sailor on Amazon


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A Brand New Sailor Boy

Actually, he has not been out on the water yet, but since he is the son of two sailors, I think it’s fair to call him a little sailor boy!

BabyJ in his Little GsSo this is why I have not been blogging lately. I’ve been busy taking care of this little one. He’ll be 6 weeks old on Wednesday! I had originally planned to reopen my Etsy store on August 1st, but that was just wishful thinking. Then I pushed it back to September 1st, which is only about a week and a half away, so we’ll see!

Anyway, I wanted to name him after the wind and the sea, so I did… in Hawaiian. Isn’t he sweet?

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Weekend Project: Brightwork and a Little Red Wagon

Refinishing the Mainboom of Hawaiian Chieftain
Refinishing the Mainboom on the Split Square-Tops'l Ketch Hawaiian Chieftain (That's Me, in My Starbucks Shirt, a Long Long Time Ago.)

Brightwork is a term that sends some sailors running for cover; it makes others jump up and down and leap for joy. Well, it makes me leap for joy, anyway. And no matter if you love the work or hate it, it’s hard to deny that the end result is beautiful.

So what exactly is “brightwork” on a boat? It doesn’t usually refer to the brass, although (if it’s polished regularly) that’s pretty bright and shiny too. Nope, it’s the wonderfully varnished woodwork that gleams like a jewel in the sun.

Let me tell you a little story to give you some background on my obsession with brightwork.

My first two or three months on the sailing vessel Hawaiian Chieftain were spent doing brightwork. She had sat boarded up for several months on Lake Michigan, getting absolutely no TLC, before she was brought to Westport, WA in 2006 for “100 Days of Summer.” This was code for “100 Days of Maintenance,” something many sailors are not very excited about.

Since at first I was only able to work on the boat in the mornings before slaving away at my day job, I did a whole lot of maintenance and not a lot of sailing. Those early morning hours spent scraping off the old, cracked varnish and then sanding the wood to a nice smooth condition, bleaching out the black spots and then sanding it again, were such meditative hours. Nobody on the crew could figure out why I loved it so much; but then, none of them were forced to spend the rest of the day standing in a stuffy, artificially-lit building in a button-down shirt, keeping track of several thousand dollars and trying not to get robbed. (Did I mention I used to be a bank teller?) Out there in the fresh air, with the boat gently swaying in the current, I felt as free as a bird, even though we were tied up at the dock. For most of the crew, maintenance was a necessary evil so that they could keep on sailing. For me, it was respite from the “real world.”

So there you have it. Some people do yoga. I did brightwork.

Now that I have a baby on the way, I try to avoid painting and varnishing. But I did marry the Bos’un after all, so when our family gifted us a brand new red wagon as a baby gift, he decided to varnish the wood before putting it all together. With a gale warning all along the central coast and plenty of sunshine to work in, it was almost like a day of boat maintenance… almost.


Maintenance Day on the Wagon

Instead of using varnish, we used Cetol Marine, which is a little more flexible and a little easier to apply. It has this deep golden color, as you can see in the photos, and it’s pretty durable too. Most of all, it reminds us of our days on the Chieftain!


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Tiny Ocean Mat

Tiny Ocean Mat, originally uploaded by LandlockedSailr.

The Bosun made this tiny Ocean Mat the other day. He intended it as a mock-up of the larger mats he’s making for household use, but I can’t get over its adorableness!


I think it would be great as a door mat on a doll house or on the miniature Westport, WA Maritime Museum. I could also add it to a headband or hair clip, or use it to embellish a handbag.


What do you think? What would you use this tiny sailor art for?


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