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Shipcraft: Marlinspike

Photo by Woody Woodworth

In the 17th century, sailors spent much of their free time crafting and repairing gear for the ship. Every element of a sailing ship required constant maintenance -- which is still true today.

Little on a ship wore out more quickly than its rope; our word "junk" was originally a nautical term for rope that was too worn to be usable. Sailors thus had ample opportunity to practice their craftwork and plenty of scrap rope to work with. The art of rope use, or marlinspike, grew out of this utilitarian reality.

Here on the replica ship Half Moon, we continue this fine tradition today. Our crew members, both students and adults, have hand-crafted many of the tools we use on board.

Students on this voyage particularly enjoyed learning how to make monkeyfists, also known as heaving lines. A monkeyfist is a large, heavy knot that gives a line heft, allowing it to be thrown far distances. The term itself comes from the maritime tradition of using "monkey" as a nickname for anything small and nimble, such as powder monkeys. "Powder monkeys," in turn, were young men -- be they sailing masters or cabin boys -- whose hands were small enough to reach inside cannons and thoroughly clean their barrels. (A tradition which does not continue on board the Half Moon.)

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