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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Things We Carry

The Ties That Bind —
The Many Uses of Lanyards

By Tamia Nelson

December 13, 2005

It's all too easy to take the little things in life for granted. Like string, for instance. Few things are more useful — or less appreciated. String keeps pictures from falling off the wall, packages from popping open under the Christmas tree, and (to take an example from my own bathroom) shower heads from flying apart under pressure. As Rudolf Smuntz, the string magnate in the wonderfully comic film Mousehunt, put it, "A world without string is chaos." And he was right.

We paddlers ought to appreciate this more than most folks. While we don't often speak of "string" — we prefer more muscular words like "cord" or "twine" — this little brother to rope is our constant companion, on the water and off. I'm no exception. Hanks of cord are stowed in my getaway pack and my bike's bar bag, with still more scattered through various larger packs, not to mention my tool kits and kitchen drawers. Ever since I splinted a rust-rotted shock-absorber support on our old Volkswagen Beetle with just a stick and my bootlaces, and then flopped clumsily down the trail for the remainder of the trip, I've made sure I'm never caught short without plenty of cord. Of course, field repairs on rusty VWs aren't an everyday affair. But consider the many places where cord is a more or less permanent fixture in the paddler's world. Crisscross lashings keep our float bags from floating away in a capsize. Drawstrings close the gaping mouths of packs and pockets. Chin straps hold our hats on our heads in half a gale. Guy lines prevent tents and tarps from blowing in the wind. And then there are lanyards.

What's a lanyard? Nothing much. Just a short length of cord or line attached to an object. It can serve as a tether or a handle — or both. The word itself is as old as the age of sail, and I'm sure the idea is older still. In any case, lanyards have been helping to hold my world together for quite a while. I learned to plait cord in a variety of decorative patterns not long after I started school. My kindergarten teacher wore a silver whistle around her neck. It hung from a plaited lanyard, and I coveted both the lanyard and the whistle. The upshot? I made a lanyard of my own as soon as I could find someone to teach me how. (But I had to wait a while for the whistle.)

I must have learned my lessons well back then, because I never lost the knack for what sailors call "fancy work." Then again, I've gotten plenty of practice over the years. Whatever my age or interest, there was always something that needed a lanyard. My first jackknife got one. I made a lanyard for my pocket compass, too, and another to suspend a canteen from my frame pack. Later, when I got a pair of Polaroid sunglasses, they also joined the list, as did my binoculars. And today? I still make lanyards for my gear, but I no longer bother with elaborate decorative plaits. You can put this down to laziness on my part, if you want. I prefer to call it efficiency. Either way, my lanyards nowadays are as simple as they can be, usually little more than lengths of nylon cord with a figure-eight loop in either end. Why nylon cord? Plastic — my material of choice when I was a girl — cracks in the cold, and leather, while aesthetically pleasing, rots. Nylon cord does neither. Better yet, it's cheap. So I'm never without a spool or two around the house. Now let's see how I use it, beginning with…

The Personal Touch

Behold a well-dressed paddler. We'll start at the top — the top of her head, that is — and work down toward her feet, noting each lanyard we encounter. Her hat comes first. It has a chin strap, of course. (Some paddlers, understandably reluctant to paddle with a ready-made garrotte about their necks, prefer a clip-on tether. It's safer, but it probably won't hold a hat in a gale.) Sunglasses come next, kept at the ready around the paddler's neck with a lanyard. This works for reading glasses and binoculars, as well. And what about her knife, whistle, compass, matchsafe, and keys? Each has a lanyard firmly affixed, as does her flashlight. And her waterproof pocket watch, too, on the rare occasions when she carries it.

Knife, compass, whistle, matchsafe.… These are all "old" essentials, aren't they? Vital, to be sure, but also cheap. What about the growing list of costly electronic essentials — call them E-ssentials, if you prefer. You know what I mean: our paddler's GPS and FRS radio, her PDA and cell phone, and her iPod. If she drops one of these in the drink she'll be watching a hundred bucks sink out of sight or float away. Not good. But there's a simple remedy. You guessed it. Lanyards. After waterproof bags and spare batteries, they're the Wired Boater's best friend.

We're not done yet. Maybe our model paddler doesn't like to come in from the cold. Maybe she's still out on the water when there's a skin of ice along the fringes of the bays. But she's already lost one glove overboard, after a wave topped the gunwale while she was shooting a picture of a tardy loon who'd delayed his leave-taking till the shank of the year. It's not an experience she's likely to forget. And she certainly doesn't want to repeat it. Her right hand still aches at the memory. That's why she's made sure it won't happen again. She runs a lanyard under the collar of her paddling jacket and through the sleeves. Now she just clips her gloves or mittens to the loops on the ends. So even when she takes her gloves off, she knows they won't take off for parts unknown. It's an idea as old as the Inuit — and it works. (Garrotte-averse paddlers can use short lanyards with clips on both ends. That way they'll never risk getting it in the neck. But someday one of the clips may let go at the wrong time.)

Enough. Our well-dressed paddler is itching to start. While she's getting her gear together, let's see what uses she finds for …

Lanyards in the Boat

Even good paddlers have bad days. But a capsize doesn't have to be a disaster. Nor does our paddler have to lose gear to every stray wave or unexpected Force 7 gust. Not if her bailers, water bottles, dry bags, and map cases all have lanyards attached, that is. (Our paddler's big packs are lashed in her boat. Are yours?) A lanyard tied off to a thwart with a slipped clove hitch will keep her spare paddle in place, too, and when paddling across open water she often goes one step further, tethering her working blade to her boat. Then she can laugh at the wind's efforts to snatch it from her grasp. (WARNING! Our model paddler knows that any lanyard can entangle her when she least wants to be tied up. To minimize the risk of this happening, she keeps all lanyards as short as possible, makes them from light cord, and never ventures out without a knife whose blade she can deploy with one hand.)

Our paddler is under way now, and she's already looking forward to her first camp. As might be expected, she'll also find many uses for…

Lanyards Ashore

A lanyard looped over a sturdy branch suspends her shower bag. It also holds the mesh sack in which she air drys her newly washed dishes. Her mirror and candle lantern (or battery light) benefit from hanging around, too. And sometimes she wants to chill a little wine before dinner. No problem. She just ties a long lanyard around the neck of the bottle, or around a bight twisted in the bag, and then lowers it carefully into the water someplace where no waves reach. "Carefully" is an important word here. Our paddler knows from bitter experience that it's no fun to dive for glass shards in fifty-degree water. She also — more bitter experience here! — makes the other end of the lanyard fast to a branch or shoreline cobble, and she double-checks every hitch. Every time.

Sadly, all trips have to end, and most end as they began — on the road. Here's how our paddler uses…

Lanyards on the Highway

She's seen one boat too many take to the air. (How many is "one too many"? One.) So when she hauls her boat to and from the water by car or bike, she does more than throw a couple of bungee cords over the bilge and attach tie-downs at bow and stern. Lanyards secure canoe thwarts to rack crossbars and keep bagged boats (and other gear) from bouncing out of bike trailers. They also back up the rubber straps holding paddles in their carriers. Of course, our model paddler makes sure that no lanyard hangs where it can wrap around a wheel. After all, lanyards not only hold things in place. They can also entrap and entangle. And that's the…

Long and Short of It

I've touched on this before, but it probably bears repetition. A tall, plain-spoken lawyer from Illinois who later became president of the United States once observed that a man's legs ought to be just long enough to reach the ground, and not a single inch longer. It's the same with lanyards. They, too, should be just long enough to do their job, and not a single inch longer. A lanyard that's too short is useless, to be sure. But one that's too long is a noose waiting for a careless victim. 'Nuff said? I hope so.

You don't have to watch your hat sail away on the wind, or look helplessly on while your flashlight (or car key!) sinks into the murky depths of Lonesome Pond. The antidote to these troubles is as close as the nearest hank of cord. Strengthen the ties that bind — with lanyards. There's no better way to bring order out of chaos.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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