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Sailing knives

2013 January 1

SAILING compared 12 knives in a head-to-head test to determine the best nautical tools for sailors

A knife may be a sailor's most important tool. Obviously a knife can be a lifesaving tool to carry on board, but it's also practical for everyday use on deck. From cutting a piece of tape or a small line, to freeing a jammed halyard to prevent serious damage to the boat, a knife's use on board range from the banal to the creative to lifesaving. In fact, a knife can be of such aid in an emergency situation that many offshore races now require all crewmembers to carry one on deck and savvy sailors wouldn't be caught without one at the ready.

SAILING compared 12 out-of-the-box knives in an informal but practical test for the best sailing knife. In a surprise, the most expensive knife and least expensive knife seemed to cut equally well, and there were significant differences in the ability of the other knives to cut a variety of lines including Kevlar-cored and triple braid.

Cutting isn't the only important factor in knife selection. Knives come in many blade styles, grips, materials and sizes, as well as different ways of opening and closing the blades. Combinations of those differences give sailors many choices to satisfy personal carrying preferences. SAILING used the test knives to evaluate and review the pros and cons of different knife designs.

The test knives included three sheath knives: the Boye Cobalt Basic 3, the NRS Co-Pilot kayaker's knife and the Smith and Wesson Aquanaut scuba knife (made by Taylor Brands). Four of the knives were classic sailor's knives with built-in marlinspikes: the Myerchin TF377, its bigger cousin, the Myerchin TF300P, the Maxam Sailor's Tool and the Boye Cobalt Folder. We tested four basic folding knives: the Buck Flashpoint, Buck Redpoint, Buck Bones and the West Marine Rigging Knife. Rounding out the test set was the Gill Personal Rescue Knife, designed for emergency situations.

The blade tip
Many sailing knives have blunt or rounded tips. The common sense safety aspect of wielding a blunt tip on a wet and plunging deck is easy to see. Some races, like those run by the Great Lakes Singlehanded Society, require the crew to carry blunt-tipped sheath knives or blunt one-handed opening knives instead of pointed knives. Most dedicated sailing knives are blunt tipped, often with the top of the blade curving down in the classic sheepsfoot-style blade. For example, the Myerchin knives we tested have sheepsfoot blades. Some blunt tips are designed as dual-purpose flathead screwdrivers.

On the other hand, pointed tips are useful for delicate cutting or puncturing, and in the rare situation of survival at sea, a pointed knife may be more useful than a blunt-tipped knife. A compromise between pointed and blunt tips is the westernized tanto tip, seen on the Buck Bones knife. The tanto looks like the end of a samurai sword and is stronger than a standard tip, but less pointed.

The blade lock
All but one of the folding blades we tested locked into the cutting position. The Maxam Sailor's Tool was the exception. A locking blade gives a sense of safety since it can't accidentally fold closed on fingers wrapped around the handle.

Some kinds of locks are stronger than others, but all are strong enough for practical marine use. We were more interested in comparing the ease of manipulating the locks and closing the knives one-handed, simulating closing the knife in bad weather conditions with the other hand holding onto the boat.

With practice, we were able to close each type of locking mechanism one-handed. The frame lock caused the most difficulty because the stiff metal frame locking the blade is hard to move with the same hand holding the knife, especially with wet hands. The Gill Personal Rescue Knife has a liner lock, and the softer liner metal allows for easier closing than a frame lock.

Lever lock knives, like the Buck Redpoint, closed easily and safely, with fingers well clear of the cutting edge as the blade folded into the handle.
The three sheath knives in our test group need no locking mechanism.
Deploying the blade

Most of the folding knives tested have a hole, pin or notched surface for a thumb or single finger to grip the blade for one-handed opening. All the knives, except one, opened easily with a bare hand and with very little practice. The exception was the Maxam Sailor's Tool which is designed for two-handed opening.

The Buck Redpoint and Buck Flashpoint have a notched radial head where the blade attaches to the knife. They are opened by gripping the radial head with a forefinger, pulling down and rotating the blade out of the handle. It's a natural movement.

Most sailors sail with bare hands or fingerless gloves, but a fully gloved finger may have trouble gripping the small hole in some blades. Sailors planning on sailing in very cold conditions should consider wearing a sheath knife with no moving parts.

Blade material
The Boye knives we tested are made from cobalt, but all the other blades we tested were stainless steel. Cobalt is impervious to corrosion, so the Boye knives should last a very long time. Microscopically, Boye blades have a sharp carbide matrix that exposes fresh carbide at each sharpening, the way a shark's mouth rotates new teeth into biting position. The carbide makes for a minutely serrated cutting surface and an aggressive edge.

We put a small, handheld compass next to the other blades as a rough measure of the quality of the stainless steel. High quality stainless steel should weather saltwater better than other stainless steels and deflect a compass needle negligibly.

The test knives by Gill, NRS and Myerchin have blades that barely moved the compass needle, and a regular rinsing in fresh water should keep these knives in great condition.

The NRS knife comes in a titanium version that the manufacturer recommends for saltwater sailors.

Carrying the knives
In the November issue of SAILING, Michael Tougias, in "Bad Weather, Hard Lessons," wrote about three sailors escaping from a sinking boat using a galley knife to cut their life raft free.

None of the sailors carried a knife on them, which may not be surprising. There is really no comfortable, convenient place to carry a knife. Foul weather gear pockets are often deep making knives hard to reach and find. Attaching knives to the outside of life jackets is convenient for everyday use on the boat, but inflatable life jackets invert when deployed, so a knife attached to the outside of an inflatable can become trapped between the sailor and the inflated jacket.

The Boye Cobalt Basic 3, Smith and Wesson Aquanaut and NRS Co-Pilot are sheath knives that can be lashed to the wheel pedestal or similar fixture. The Co-Pilot is a kayaker's knife and the sheath is designed to clip onto a life jacket strap, and the knife is released by simultaneously squeezing two buttons on the sheath. It's a short knife, and could be carried on the back of the waist strap of an inflatable life jacket.

The Gill Personal Rescue Knife and Myerchin knives are folders, but come with synthetic sheaths that are comfortable to wear on the hip with a belt, and could be strapped on the outside of foul weather gear.

Most of the folding test knives come with pocket clips, which aren't particularly secure on sailors because squatting can push the knife out of a pants' front pocket. Possibly the best compromise for these knives is a lanyard from a belt to a knife clipped in a pocket. The knife could be retrieved from the pocket by the lanyard.

The sharpened edge and the cutting test
Some of the knives had straight edges, some had serrated edges, and others had mixed blades with the tip end straight and the handle end serrated. We verified that the manufacturer provided a sufficiently sharp edge by catching the edge on the top of a fingernail. All the knives had a satisfactorily sharp edge except the Smith and Wesson Aquanaut.

Serrated edges work by applying less cutting surface, but with greater force than a straight blade. The Gill Personal Rescue Knife's serrated edge is unique with rounded serrations instead of sharp ones. That design is good for cutting line because the teeth don't hang up on clumps of thread, so the knife feels like a straight edge but cuts like a serrated edge.

The Gill blade has a hook-shaped curve and feels like the cutting pressure is maintained all the way to the tip of the blade. The curve makes it a great rescue tool, but not so good for cutting steak.

We tested the cutting efficiency of each knife by counting the number of upward pull cuts in a loop of 3/8-inch, Kevlar-cored line until the line severed. In practice tests we found that lines under stress, like a straining jib sheet, cut easily with almost any knife so we gave our test knives a more rigorous test on lightly stressed line, simulating a life raft painter or a tether.

The Boye knives and the West Marine Rigging Knife cut the line in one stroke, followed by the Buck knives cutting the line in two or three strokes. The NRS Co-Pilot came in a disappointing second-to-last. For us, its clever design and thoughtful sheath can't overcome the 14 strokes required to cut the test line. The Aquanaut failed to cut at all (we stopped after dozens of attempts) and the Maxam Sailor's Tool required 10 tries to cut. For this reason we do not recommend these three knifes.

The final cut
The poor cutting ability of some knives surprised us, but a surprise on the dock is better than a surprise at sea. We recommend sailors test their sailing knives on a scrap of line or webbing before an emergency strikes. Slashing at a painter a dozen times to free a life raft from a sinking boat would only add to the stress of the situation and expose the sailor to the risk of falling off the raft.

Cutting ability isn't the only consideration for a good sailing knife. An average cutter that is conveniently carried within quick reach is superior to any knife buried in a galley drawer. One option is to wear a small folding knife when weather conditions make for safe sailing, but change up to a sturdier knife in bad weather. Or keep a good knife permanently attached to a life jacket. When the weather calls for a life jacket the knife gets carried too.

A final consideration is balancing cost with quality and blade longevity. We didn't test durability, but an expensive cobalt or titanium blade will last longer under salt exposure than a moderately priced steel blade. Some knives with rust-proof blades may have stainless pocket clips that corrode fast in wet foul weather gear.

What our tests showed is that there are compromises with any knife-whether it be with ease of use, cost, durability or extra features. Sailors need to take these advantages and disadvantages into consideration and choose the knife that best fits how they expect to use it.