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Why sailors need a sharp knife, insurance and sometimes adrenaline

2013 April 4

I ran into an old sailing friend by chance the other day on a quiet residential street in Naples, Florida. We've been sailing forever, but the particular thing we have in common is that both of our boats were wrecked in the same storm 35 years ago. His Pearson 323 and my C&C 33 were among 22 vessels on moorings in an exposed harbor that were driven onto a beach and adjacent parking lot like so much fiberglass flotsam by monstrous storm seas. Our curbside reminiscing about that epic night inevitably got to the point where my friend said "and then you swam out to your boat with a knife between your teeth."

As is common with sailing stories, this one has accrued drama as it has aged. The boat was already hitting the bottom, so it was a short swim through the surf. And the knife was in my pocket, not clenched in my teeth Johnny Depp style.
Still, I have to say that even without the benefit of exaggeration that vignette imbued lessons that remain vivid to this day.

The first was that there is a good reason we spend a lot of money to insure our boats against disaster. I swam to the boat to release it from the pennants attached to its dragging concrete mooring so it would not be held in surf with the keel being driven through the hull as it pounded on the bottom.

What a naif! Instead of getting wet, I should have wet my whistle in the nearby waterfront tavern and then phoned my insurance agent with a heads-up to expect a big claim.

Lesson two was to never underestimate the power of anxiety. Getting from the water to the deck of a high-freeboard sailboat without the help of a ladder, rope or strong-armed crewman is a daunting maneuver for anyone less physically adept than an Olympic gymnast and nigh on to impossible for anyone weighted down with sodden clothing. Don't ask me how I did it, but I grabbed the rail and then flipped over the lifelines like an orangutan. It was probably the most spectacular athletic feat of my life, but it requires an asterisk, because it could not have been accomplished without a potent dose of a PED-the amazing performance-enhancing drug called adrenaline.

The third lesson was about knives, as is the rest of this column: A dull knife is no sailor's friend.

My aim was to simply uncleat the mooring pennants, but they were hopelessly jammed around the cleats. So I took out my trusty sailor's knife, one of those stainless steel jobs with a blade on one side and marlinespike on the other. I had owned it since boyhood, when I spliced it to a cotton line with a bass swivel snap and proudly carried it everywhere as a badge of sailorly cool.

The pennants were three-quarter-inch nylon hardened by sun and strain and my pathetic knife barely ruffled their strands. I sawed away for an eternity, all the while the boat rising on the waves and crashing down on her keel. I finally worked through about two-thirds of each pennant when an extra big wave smacked the boat like a runaway bulldozer and the lines parted and, as though relieved, the boat laid on her side and washed ashore.

They still make a knife like the one that failed me then. You can buy it for $23 from Sears. It still doesn't cut worth a darn. When the SAILING technical staff rated a dozen different sailing knives in the January issue, that classic rigging knife was one of the least effective tested, requiring 10 cuts to sever a 3/8-inch Kevlar-cored line that some of the tested knives cut in a single stroke.

Sharp knives have been essential tools for sailors for time immemorial, but they've never been more important than now. Some of the rope used as running rigging on our sailboats today is stronger than steel. And sometimes cutting it quickly and easily is more than a convenience-when, for example, a sheet attached to a shrimping spinnaker wraps around a hapless leg and threatens to pull a crewmember overboard.

Sailing knives have another role in survival these days. Some offshore races now require each crewmember to carry a flat or one-hand-opening folding knife for the express purpose of cutting safety harness tethers. The rules were instituted after two sailors died in the 2011 Chicago-Mackinac Race. Their bodies were found beneath the capsized boat to which they were tethered.

It's a good rule, but when I saw the array of sharp-edged hardware my crew was sporting in last year's Mackinac race, I felt compelled to issue a warning to be careful not to cut off any digits or anything else.

Speaking of safety, sailor's knives should not have points. Sharp-pointed blades serve no purpose on a boat, but could hurt someone in a fraught situation, or maybe poke a hole in an inflatable life vest. One of the nice features of my old rigging knife was that it had a blunt blade tip. So does the knife I now carry, a Boye folder. The similarity ends there-the Boye actually cuts.

By the way, our test found that cutting ability is not related to cost. The cheapest knife tested, a $20 West Marine model, cut high-tech rope about as well as an exotic flat knife that cost $324.

I learned the lesson taught by those stubborn mooring pennants, but it took a while. Some years later on a different boat, when a boom preventer had to be cut during a broach, I still didn't have a blade up to the job. Nor did any other crewmember, until one of them dashed below and came back with a butcher knife from the galley. It cut through the line like butter.

That lesson? Your best sailing knife might be in your kitchen.