We survived another winter at the lighthouse, which was no small accomplishment in close quarters with an active toddler, even with the unseasonably mild weather. The long nights require quiet, indoor pastimes. For parents with a small child, that often means re-reading the same half-dozen storybooks…ten thousand times.
Ah, how life changes! My wife Anna and I spent our first winter together at the lighthouse familiarizing ourselves with the Ashley Book of Knots. It was recommended to us by turn-of-the-century keeper Dick Duncan as the bible of knot tying, and we found a hardcover edition in mint condition on the shelves of O.U.R. Bookshop in the village. Many evenings seated on the sofa by the warmth of the parlor stove, we paged through the illustrations and descriptions of hundreds of knots for every purpose imaginable — lanyards, buttons, stoppers, lashings, splices, hitches, etc.
Feeling ambitious, we practiced the Prolong Knot, so named because, according to Mr. Ashley, “its length may be added to — that is, it may be prolonged.” Just the sort of knot for passing the time. I wove thick manila rope into a rough doormat while Anna plaited finer cotton cord into a cloud-like centerpiece for a necklace.
With the arrival of springtime, attention turns to outdoor projects, and the preoccupation with knots turns from the decorative to the practical. More than a winter hobby, knots are handy for lighthouse chores such as bundling a load of laundry onto a frame pack, tying up the row boat, or lashing a tarp over the woodpile.
Overlapping with the nautical realm, lighthouse keeping inevitably involves seamanship skills, knot-tying among them. Knot-tying is an indispensable skill not only for sailors and lighthouse keepers but also for numerous other occupations.
There’s a satisfaction in tying the specific knot best suited for a particular task. Even so, no need to consult the knot bible every time or memorize chapter and verse of all 4300 knots described by Mr. Ashley. Most people can get through life with a half-dozen or so basic knots.
As it happens, not too long ago, I was seated at the dinner table with a woodworker, a shipwright, a boat captain, and a horseback rider. Out of curiosity, I asked the question, “What’s your favorite or most frequently used knot?” We were able to come up with a list of six that covered most everyday situations. Jim Kricker of Rondout Woodworking offered his top three: trucker’s hitch, clove hitch, and bowline. These met with general agreement among the assembled as all-around useful knots.
Kate Shuter, who loves horseback-riding among her many outdoor pursuits, added that she likes the highwayman’s hitch, handy for hitching a horse to a fence post or tying up a small boat to a dock piling. It’s a great a quick-release knot to have in your repertoire for fast getaways. Her husband Dock mentioned the figure-eight — a stopper knot with a lot of applications.
Anika Savio, captain of the sloop Clearwater, said that she gets a lot of use out of the “round turn with two half-hitches.” Eureka! Something clicked when she named that knot, and I shot Dock a look of recognition. Years ago, I helped him get a couple of floating docks ashore. We tethered them to a tree to make sure they wouldn’t float away on the next high tide. I noticed that he knotted his with a bowline. I asked, “Two half-hitches okay?” He shrugged in his usual taciturn manner. I took that as an affirmative. The overnight tide also had its say on the matter. By morning light, only one dock remained onshore. The one I had tied was nowhere to be seen.
We laugh about this now because, fortunately, the floating dock turned up within a couple of days, carried by the whims of the wind and tide. When Captain Anika named the knot I suddenly realized what had been missing from that infamous knot: I failed to make the important round-turn before tying the two half-hitches.
Without the round-turn, the two-half hitches were little better than a “hoosier knot.” This was the colloquial term for the disorganized knots we tied as kids before we were properly schooled by our scoutmasters. Dizzying combinations of granny knots, overhand knots, and half-hitches, these hoosier knots often rivaled the mythical Gordian knot that confounded philosophers of ancients times. Usually, they held fast, but violated the first rule of knot-tying: “a not-neat knot need not be knotted.” The value of a knot is not only in its ability to hold together but also in its ability to either look pretty — like a decorative Prolong Knot — or to be easily untied when the job is complete. But not “too” easily…like my disreputable two-half hitches.