Learning the ropes…

July 19, 2011Jake DiMare

Jackie on the bow
Jackie on the bow

Last Sunday Jackie and I continued the Basic Keel Boat course at Courageous Sail in Charlestown, Ma. Although she doesn’t want to admit it, her abilities have improved considerably in the last two months. She’s well on her way to being a confident, competent skipper.
In the shot above she’s preparing to assist with landing on the docks by handling the bowline. This responsibility requires dexterity, timing and knowledge of what’s what on the boat. In order to be a successful sailor one must know the ropes. For a new sailor this lack of knowledge can be daunting.
And it has been a challenge for me as well. Although I sailed quite a bit as a boy, it’s been many, many years since I had to know the difference between a Jib Sheet and a Main Halyard on a moments notice…Let alone communicate these terms to anyone else on the boat calmly and efficiently. But I have a lot of context and like so many other things in life that create anxiety…I find it comforting to know I am not alone. Since man first ventured onto the sea we’ve needed to communicate in order for two or more people to handle any type of vessel. In order to be able to communicate effectively it is necessary for everything on the boat to have a name…And so it does.
The term ‘Learning the Ropes’ is in fact a nautical term and describes an experience every young sailor would endure when they would literally learn the name of every rope (and any other object on a sailing vessel). I’ve read about this ritual a couple of times and my favorite telling is in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Captain’s Courageous’ where Harvey, a young boy on board a New England schooner for the first time, is followed around by Long Jack, a grizzled old sailor and punished with a lashing each time he mistakes a rope. Here’s a quote from the novel:

There’s good and just reason for ivry rope aboard, or else ‘t would be overboard. D’ ye follow me? Tis dollars an’ cents I’m puttin’ into your pocket, ye skinny little supercargo, so that f’whin ye’ve filled out ye can ship from Boston to Cuba an tell them Long Jack larned you. Now I’ll chase ye around a piece, callin the ropes, an you’ll lay your hand on thim as I call.

This has always been one of my favorite stories and a must read for anyone who loves the ocean.

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