Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A proper sailor's knife with some history

My rigging knife has served me well for more than a quarter century.
A friend asked me yesterday what I thought made a good rigging knife. The question took me back 25 years ago when I was working on the tall ship Lady Washington. I worked in the office pimping the project but I stole out to the shipyard often to talk to the shipwrights and riggers. Ostensibly, it was for information that I could use in the articles and news releases I wrote to promote the Washington State Centennial project, but really it was to learn as much as I could for my own selfish ends.

I was a hopeless fan boy when it came to the riggers. Those guys were just cool! And they carried a knife everywhere, all the time. This knife wasn't like the knives you saw in chandleries that catered to weekend sailors and yachties. This knife was made for serious work. It was almost always in their hands. I looked for one like theirs, but couldn't find anything close, so I had a friend make me one.

Ken Adamson also worked on the Lady Washington at the same time I did. We were friends for some years before. It was he who encouraged me to leave my job at the newspaper to work for the fledgling Grays Harbor Historical Seaport, which was building the Lady Washington.
That's me at the right, in a costume my wife sewed. Ken is the guy with grey hair and glasses in the back row second from the right.

Ken was an all around craftsman. A former high school industrial arts teacher, there weren't many crafts he wasn't familiar with, if not already an expert in. His woodworking skills were legendary in the shipyard. When there was a problem that needed solving Ken was the go-to guy. He also made pots, jewelry and knives in his home studio.

I told Ken of my fruitless quest to find a proper rigger's knife and asked if he would make me one. He watched the riggers closely too and knew just what was needed. I had complete faith in his skills as a craftsman and left the details of the knifemaking to him. Several weeks later he told me my knife was finished and I went to his studio to pick it up.

It was everything I wanted and more. The wood scales were of African kingwood and the handle fit my hand perfectly. The blade had a thick spine to take whacks from a mallet to drive it through rope. Ken ground down the blade to give it a little hollow and bring it to a sharp edge. He crafted, almost inconspicuously, a small eye in the back of the handle to take a lanyard. But perhaps the most elegant feature of the knife was its drop point. It looked just right.

Most "rigging knives" sold at chandleries had a sheep-foot point - maybe end is a better term because a sheep-foot point is not pointy at all. In the sailing ship days when a sailor would come aboard for a cruise he would hand over his knife to the bosun's mate. The bosun's mate would stab the point in the ship's rail, break it off and hand it back to the sailor. Fights in the fo'c's'le were less lethal with pointless knives.

Unfortunately, these disabled knives became associated with sailor's knives and the tradition created a whole crop of knives without a point. Having a point on a rigging knife is a handy thing, and not just when your shipmate gets a little feisty.

Ken made the blade of high-carbon steel. It holds an edge like nobody's business. I've never had a problem with rust on the blade; care and use keeps the rust away. Stainless knives are for late-night cooking shows; just like stainless boat anchors are for marina queens - not real voyaging boats.
Some of the other tools in my ditty bag. Note how deep the knife is in its sheath.

I made my own sheath for my knife out of harness leather with a turks' head knot at the top for reinforcement and to keep the opening's shape. The sheath is deep, so the knife is secure. Ken approved of the sheath and especially liked the turk's head.

When I'm on deck, or especially aloft, I attach a longer lanyard to the leather thong that's always on the knife. The lanyard hooks the knife to my belt and keeps me from losing it overboard or becoming a missile when dropped from aloft.

The knife Ken made me may not be the best rigging knife for everyone - maybe not for my friend who asked me about rigging knives, but for me it's perfect. Ken died a couple of years ago. I miss him. The knife he made me is still warm with the labor, skill and love he put into it. I think of him each time I use it.