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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Learning the Ropes

Putting Splice in Your Life

By Tamia Nelson

February 15, 2005

I love ropework, and that's a very good thing. I was a climber before I was a paddler, and a climber's rope is her lifeline. It didn't take me very long to realize that the skills I'd learned while clinging to cliff faces would be equally useful on the water: rope is the paddler's lifeline, too. Look at all the ways we use it. Bow and stern lines — or painters, if you prefer. Throw bags. Tracking lines. And that's only the beginning. We lash our packs into our boats to prevent our gear from floating away when we dump. Back on land, we tie our boats to our cars to keep our pride and joy from taking a flier on the highway. Even the camp clothesline is made of rope, and cord lanyards keep our knives and compasses from going astray. In short, every paddler soon discovers that a world without rope is chaos.

But rope isn't enough by itself. You need a few good knots, as well. Yet sometimes a knot — even a good knot — isn't good enough. Knots don't have a very forgiving nature. Tie them the wrong way, and they'll let you down. Knots are bulky, too. Want a for-instance? Join two lines with a fisherman's knot, than try to reeve the knotted line through a block or fairlead, or snake it through a grommet. See the problem? If the knot's too bulky, it'll jam. Don't have a block handy? Then maybe you saw Touching the Void. If you did, you'll know just how a knot that's too big can ruin a climber's day.

Of course, few of us will ever have to lower an injured companion down the face of a snow-covered peak without help, and the best way to prevent a jammed block is to reeve a long enough line in the first place, one without a knot in the middle. But there's another reason why good knots can cause bad problems. Even when properly tied, every knot is a weak link, eating away at the strength of the rope it's made in, sometimes by 50% or more. If this worries you, and if you've got two ropes that are ready to commit to a long-term relationship, take it from me — they don't want to tie the knot. They want to…

Get Spliced

The art of splicing was once part of every waterman's toolkit. Now it's almost a lost art. Why? Well, for one thing, splicing is fussy work. It takes practice, and it can't be hurried. But the idea is simple enough. When you splice a couple of ropes, you tease two ends apart and then weave them together. The result? Two ropes are now one. But you don't have a knot. Sound like a neat trick? It is. And it has a wide range of applications. You can splice laid rope, braided rope, and multi-strand wire cable. You can even splice rope to wire. You won't learn how to splice wire from me, though. In fact, to keep things simple, I'll limit myself to splices in laid rope, and leave braided rope for another time. Forgotten the difference between the two? Then this sketch should help to jog your memory…

Rope Rap

OK. The long and short of splicing is…well…long and short. Those are the two basic splices. The long splice is no bigger around than the original rope, but the splice itself is a weak link. On the other hand, the short splice preserves 90% of the rope's strength, but it's bulky. Not as bulky as a knot, maybe, but too bulky for some jobs. That's why sailors favor long splices when they have to reeve running rigging through blocks. Luckily, paddlers don't have to reeve too many lines. So the short splice is probably the one that we'll find most useful. Here it is in pictures…

Getting Spliced

Before you start practicing, be sure to give yourself enough rope. Three-foot lengths of half-inch, three-strand laid nylon are ideal, but just about any laid rope will do. The only hard-and-fast requirement? Make it easy on yourself. Join like to like. Don't mix ropes of different diameters or materials. (The strands in the sketch are colored to help keep things straight. Your rope won't be, obviously, though you may want to number or mark the strands, at least at first.)

Ready? Let's begin.

  1. Unlay (untwist) the ends to be joined. Go back three or more complete turns. Now "marry" the loosened strands. Plain-spoken sailors called this "crotching" the rope ends. The illustration shows you why — and how they did it. Before moving on, seize the strands on one side with twine. This holds things together while you work with the free strands on the other side.

  2. Starting with any one of these (I picked the green-tinted strand in my illustration), lift it over its nearest neighbor in the married rope and then tuck it under the next in line, in the direction opposite the rope's natural twist. This is called working against the lay.

  3. Now tuck the two remaining free strands, turning the ropes as needed. The movements stay the same: lift over and then tuck under, always working against the lay. Don't be surprised if it gets harder as you go. The splice tightens with each tuck. Loosely laid stuff can be opened up with a simple twist of the wrist, but you'll probably need the help of a marlinspike or fid sooner or later.

  4. When all three free strands have been tucked once, go round a second time, repeating the process. Then repeat it yet again for safety's sake. All done? Good. Now cut the seizing and tuck each of the newly freed strands. Repeat, and then repeat again, for a total of three rounds of tucks on both sides. After you've made the last tuck, place the splice on a hard surface and roll it with your palm to even it out. That's it. You're done. WARNING! When you've finished, don't yield to the temptation to trim the tag ends flush. It will look neater, to be sure, but there's a good chance the cut ends will pull through as soon as the rope comes under load. Then your splice will unravel. Not so good. Whip the tag ends, instead.


What's next? It's time to tackle the…

Eye Splice

It's a really useful trick to have in your toolkit. Short splices are good for building extra-long tracking lines and repairing the painter that you accidently cut with the camp ax. Unless you're planning on spending months at a time in the backcountry, however, you won't need them very often. But a permanent eye is something else. It has beaucoup uses — anywhere you'd use a figure-eight loop, in fact. And there's no better way to finish off a lanyard. Best of all, it's easy to make. An eye-splice is really just half a short splice. Take any laid rope. Unlay the strands a short distance from the end. (How long is "short"? It depends on the rope, but three complete turns is a good place to start. Experiment.) Then form a loop of the size you want and finish up by tucking the free ends into the standing part of the rope. It's a snake-eating-its-tail thing. Get the picture?

No? Want a little more detail? Here goes:

  1. Unlay the strands at one end of the rope, using a temporary seizing to keep the rest of the rope from coming apart. Then form the loop. Large or small, it makes no difference, though if you're making a permanent painter or lanyard, be sure to thread the rope through the shackle before you finish off your splice. If you don't, you'll only have to undo all your work and start again.

  2. Fan the free stands out. Tuck the middle one under a strand on the standing part of the rope, right above the loop. As before, work against the lay. Now do the same thing with the free strand on the left of the first, tucking it under the next strand to the left on the standing part. Then tuck the last free strand, turning the rope as needed.

  3. Once that's done, make a second tuck with each free strand, using the same "over one, under one" motion you used in forming the short splice. Lastly, make a third and final tuck all round. Your eye-splice is finished. (A reminder: Don't cut the protruding ends too close.)

Piece of cake? Well, maybe not the first time. What is? But practice does make perfect. So go ahead. Give it a try. Some blustery weekend afternoon, when winter's winning its battle with the sun and paddling is still a distant dream, grab a couple of pieces of old rope and pour a wee dram to keep the chill at bay. Then settle down in a comfortable chair and start putting a little splice in your life. Why should sailors have all the fun, eh?

Here's to learning the ropes!

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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