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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Learning the Ropes

The Line on Painters Coiled and Ready

By Tamia Nelson

November 13, 2012

F or years now I've been getting occasional letters from readers who are puzzled by my use of the word "painter." What, they ask, is a painter? At first, the question took me aback. I'd been applying this label to bow (and stern) lines since I started messing about in boats, and I'd never given it a second thought. But I should have. The word has an interesting history.

Originally — and the Oxford English Dictionary gives examples dating back to the 15th century — a painter was a rope or chain used to keep a heavy anchor from flailing about when carried at a ship's cathead. To modern sailors, however, a painter is the short bow line on a dinghy. Simple enough, that. Just how I came to label both bow and stern lines as painters, I don't know. I suspect I started out by aping the language of the paddlers from whom I learned the ropes. But in any case, I know I'm not alone. And it's convenient to have a single collective noun to distinguish short mooring lines from the much longer ropes used in tracking. Which is why I'll probably persist in my minor linguistic solecism.

Whatever questions might arise about the name, however, there's no doubt that painters are very handy things to have on a boat. Any boat. Capsizes happen to the best of us, after all, and when they do, it's good to have towing (or hauling) lines in place. Anyone who has ever had a painterless boat go feral can attest to this. Still, unintended swims are rare events in the lives of paddlers. Most of the time, painters are put to more mundane ends than assisting in the salvage of swamped craft: tying off to a mooring ring or shoreline tree during a lunch stop, for example. Or hobbling a beached boat to prevent it from taking wing when a gentle breeze becomes a howling gale. Or helping to ease a loaded canoe up and over a high beaver dam. Or controlling a boat while wading.

Painters can even be pressed into service while tracking or lining, either to negotiate drops that are a little too dicey to run (but not long enough or lively enough to require a portage), or to add an extra 15 or 20 feet to a tracking line that doesn't quite measure up to the job in hand.

That's quite a lot to ask of two short lengths of line, isn't it? But painters are up to it. If, that is, you …

Choose Well

A painter shouldn't be just any old piece of rope you happen to have lying around the garage. (I've even seen boaters use bits of weathered clothesline!) Rope is sophisticated stuff, and selecting a particular rope for a particular job deserves careful consideration. Luckily, it's easy to state the requirements for a good painter. It should be …

  • Strong
  • Hard‑wearing
  • At least 6 mm (¼ inch) in diameter (but no more than 10 mm)
  • Between 15 and 25 feet long — though a few boaters fit painters up to 50 feet under some circumstances

Either laid or braided line will do — if the line of your choice will take and hold a knot. (Some cheap polypro lines are effectively knot‑proof.) In the past, I favored 25‑foot lengths of ¼‑inch Goldline, a three‑strand laid (twisted) nylon line that was once a climbing standard. Sadly, Goldline is now consigned to history, but similar laid nylon lines can still be found. Of late, however, I've also been using kernmantel (braided core‑and‑sheath, frequently Englished as "kernmantle") polypro. Anyway, here are a few examples from our present collection of painters:

What's My Line?

The two in the middle are ¼‑inch Goldline. One is 50 feet long; the other, 25. Their more exotic‑looking companions are 25‑foot lengths of 8 mm and 9 mm polypro kernmantel (the topmost and bottommost lines, respectively). The Goldline has — to my mind, anyway — by far the better "hand," and its slight elasticity is welcome when trying to hold a heavily loaded boat against a surging current. But the polypro lines float, and that's no small advantage in a painter. They also stand up better under the daily assault of solar ultraviolet radiation, though I have to confess that I'm still using Goldline painters I bought a quarter‑century ago. While these exhibit noticeable bleaching and the odd broken fiber, they're still serviceable. A test rig might well tell a very different tale, however, and sensible paddlers will replace their painters on a more regular schedule.

Now that we've looked at how long you should keep a painter in service — and you've prudently decided not to follow my bad example — another question immediately arises: How long should a painter be? That's not an easy call. Longer painters are more versatile, but they're also harder to control, and every extra foot of length increases the chance that you'll find yourself tangled in a painter in a capsize. The absolute risk is probably small, but the danger is real, nonetheless. It's a rare paddler who hasn't managed to wrap a painter around a foot or hand at least once, though not always as the result of a capsize.

So it's up to you. Kayakers usually opt for short painters. This makes sense. Long painters are awkward things to stow on decked craft. Canoeists have more freedom to ring the changes. Some go as short as 10 feet. A few, as long as 50. Others scale the painter to the boat, fitting longer lines to longer boats. Me? I split the difference between extremes, settling for 25 feet, without regard for the length of the boat: To my mind, a pack canoe warrants the same outfitting as a freighter. I also keep a couple of 50‑foot lines in gasket coils in reserve, though I leave these behind for short trips to nearby beaver ponds, where 50‑foot lines would definitely be overkill.


OK. You have your painters. Now …

What Do You Tie Them To?

Wood‑canvas canoes often had mooring rings, and Grumman's redoubtable "tin tanks" boasted through‑bolted shackles on both bow and stern stems, but many modern plastic canoes simply have holes in their decks. Kayaks, happily, are somewhat better provided for, with either molded handgrips or webbing grab loops, and the same thing can be said about most of the sit‑on‑tops I've seen.

Mooring ring, shackle, hole, or handgrip — it makes no difference. Any of these can be used as an attachment point for a painter. Then again, a painter is only as secure as its anchor, and I often question the tenacity of the pop‑riveted decks that grace modern canoes. Cautious paddlers who frequent turbulent waters may therefore want to consider reinforcing the deck hardware before entrusting their boats to the mercy of the waves. It also pays to examine all molded handgrips and holes for rough or sharp edges. I've found some that would put a razor to shame.

Next comes the question of the connection itself. Rather than relying on a figure‑eight stopper or tying off directly to a canoe's deck, I often weave a loop of climber's webbing through the molded hole and around the edge, joining the ends with a water knot. Then I tie the painter to the webbing loop. This way I get the benefit of both grab loop and painter. And speaking of tying off, my first choice is the bowline, the aptly named "king of knots," paired with an overhand stopper. I've occasionally used a figure‑eight loop, however. It's more awkward to tie, but it seems to hold better in polypro braid. Some paddlers adopt a different approach, making a bowline on the end of the painter and then clipping it to a handgrip or grab loop with a carabiner. This makes it easy to remove the painter in hurry, but unless you double up 'biners and oppose the gates (or use a locking 'biner), there's a small chance that your painter may come adrift just when you want it most. The bottom line? I don't think 'biners are worth the bother.

Now here's a bowline in action:

Tying One On


Does this bowline look rather loose? It is. I've left it that way to show how it's tied. It will always be pulled taut and snugged down in use. But while we're engaging in loose talk, there remains the problem of …

Corralling Your Painters

You don't want coils of line lying loose in the bottom of your boat where they can ensnare a foot in a hard chance, nor do you want to tread on your painters with your muddy shoes. (Sand can erode rope fibers, weakening them.) On the other hand, you can't afford to do such a good job of getting the painters out of the way that it takes you 10 minutes to free them when you need them. Is there a happy medium? Yes. And canoeists have an easy option: Just coil your painters and stow them under the grab loops, a maneuver I've called the "painter tuck." No grab loops? No problem. Simply slip the coil through the open loop of the bowline itself. You may need to adjust the size of the loop to make this work, but that's an easy job.

Stow Job

I've made tidier coils in my day, but you get the idea, I'm sure. And now here's a look at a coil corralled by the loop of the securing bowline alone. It runs fore‑and‑aft rather than athwartships, a better choice when threading narrow channels between tangles of alder:

Another Stow Job

That takes care of canoes. Kayakers don't have it quite so easy, however. Which is why we've often made do with a single stern painter, running it forward and stowing the coil under the deck rigging:

On Deck!

Then again, we occasionally run a longish bow painter all the way aft and then bring it back through the stern grab loop, tying it off to itself — we use a slipped tautline hitch — within easy reach of the boat's skipper, thereby combining the functions of painter and deck line. Here's what this looks like:

Under Way

Several words of warning are in order here, however: While this back‑and‑forth weave can be convenient for short stretches of easy water, particularly if you'll be doing a lot of wading, it's never a good idea to run lines under the cockpit coaming when you'll be venturing into big waves or difficult rapids. It's far too easy to tangle a paddle in the resulting cat's cradle when rolling, and it can also entangle you in a wet exit. That said, long painters come in mighty handy when ashore, as the next photo of our "storm rig" demonstrates. A couple of stakes is all we need to keep our boats from taking flight, though if a really hard blow is in the offing, we'll also wedge a rolled foam pad between the kayaks to stop them chafing — a sort of landlubber's fender.

Gale Warning

Of course, some paddlers dispense with all this fussing about. They just let their painters trail. And for a time this insouciant approach enjoyed a certain favor. A case for it was even argued on safety grounds. If you capsized, so the argument went, you could grab the trailing painter as you flailed about in the water, thereby ensuring that you weren't parted from your swamped craft. I wasn't convinced. Not only were the waterlogged painters literally a drag, but I figured that if I ever capsized while trailing a painter — and I dumped with some regularity during my paddling apprenticeship — the line was as likely to end up around my neck as in my hand. Needless to say, I didn't find that prospect attractive.

Fortunately, the fashion for trailing painters doesn't seem to have lasted. Perhaps paddlers just got tired of catching the bow line with their paddles. Which might be why the bowman in this picture is resting on her oars, so to speak:

What a Drag!


So much for choosing and using painters. Now let's say a few words about …

Care and Wear

The first rule? Never, ever, stand on a rope. (Unless its a ratline or a footrope on a yard, that is. But you won't meet either of these until you're working aloft on a tall ship.) That was easy, wasn't it? And after heavy‑footed lubbers, a rope's worst enemies are gritty dirt, sharp edges, and sunlight. What can you do about these? Easy. Keep your painters clean (I'll have something to say about this in a minute), avoid running them over sharp edges, and … well … keeping painters out of the sun really isn't possible, is it? A few fastidious paddlers fit bags over their coiled painters, but I've never bothered, and I've been using some of my painters for 25 years now. If the idea appeals to you, though, just make sure the bags won't prevent you from grabbing the painters in a hurry when they're needed.

Good ropekeeping also demands that you whip your rope ends. You can do it the old‑fashioned way with needle and palm if you want, or your can use heat‑shrink tubing. Or you can just dip the rope ends in one of the gluey gunks sold for the purpose. However you do it, do it. Cutting with a hot knife is not enough in itself. A rope unravels from the ends, and a raveling rope is a perishing nuisance. Be sure you rinse your painters in clean water whenever they get dirty, too — you'll probably have to do this after each trip — and let them air dry in a shady spot. Then, once they've dried, inspect them carefully. Older ropes will sport a bit of fuzz on the outer surface, a sort of five‑o'clock shadow. This isn't anything to worry about, but if you see many broken fibers (or any cuts at all), it's time to turn Old Painter out to pasture. If that isn't possible — if you first notice that a painter has been cut seven days into a two‑week trip, for example — you can temporarily bypass the damaged portion by knotting or splicing the sound segments together, though the rope will still be weakened. The double fisherman's knot is a good choice in such emergencies. It's also one of the best knots for joining shorter ropes in order to make a long tracking line.

But what if an older painter shows no obvious signs of wear? How long should you keep it in service? We touched on this question earlier, but I think it's worth revisiting. Any rope that's been used to winch a boat off a rock should probably be retired to less demanding duty, as should tracking lines that have seen hard use (heavily loaded boats, swift currents, rocky shores) for more than three seasons. The same is true of throw bags, whether they've been used in a rescue or not. But painters on boats that don't venture into harm's way can probably be kept in service until they sustain obvious cuts. As I've already said, some of my working painters are more than 25 years old. The only absolute rule? If in doubt, doubt. And then replace your painters.


Why all this fuss and bother about a bit of rope? Well, Rudolf Smuntz famously observed that "a world without string is chaos," and much the same thing can be said about a boat without a painter. Who would want to do without so useful a tool, anyway? No paddler that I know.


Whether you call it a bow line or a painter, you need one. In fact, you probably need two, one at each end of your boat. (Which makes the second one a "stern line," of course.) Whatever name you choose, few items of gear will get more day‑to‑day use, or prove handier in a hard chance. Maybe you were wondering what there could possibly be to say about a short length of rope. Well, now that you know the line on painters, you'll be able to answer that question for yourself.



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