Learning the Ropes
More Lines on Painters
By Tamia Nelson
December 11, 2012
I didn't expect that my recent article on painters — which are, after all, just short lengths of rope — would generate much interest, let alone provoke genteel controversy. But it did. I shouldn't have been surprised. When you think about it, a lot hangs on these scraps of cordage. We use painters every time we tie up for a shore lunch, get our camp ready to weather a blow, or lash our boats down for the long trip home. Painters even come into play when we're preparing to winch a wayward boat free after an unplanned encounter with a midriver rock.
The obvious conclusion? The humble painter is an important item of gear, and it deserves more attention than it usually gets. Many of you apparently agree. I got a lot of mail around "The Line on Painters." Some folks wrote to second my recommendations. Other writers took issue with them. And still others explored the vast and shifting middle ground between wholehearted agreement and outright dissent.
Taken all together, these letters reflected many decades of experience and a lot of thought. As such, they were simply too valuable to keep to myself, and that's why I'm going to fade into the background for a bit, in order to open the floor to other voices. It's over to you, now. And what better way to begin than with …
The King of Knots
The bowline is the workhorse in my collection of rope tricks, and I said as much in my article. This encouraged Marty Gregory to write:
Speaking of the bowline, I used to teach sailing at the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle, Washington. One of the first things after the introduction to the class was showing how to tie one. The homework from that session was to practice tying one until it was pretty automatic. The next class the students would be asked to tie one while being timed. Then they were told to go home, turn on the cold water in the shower, turn off the lights and jump into the shower and tie one in the dark. This really is as close to a heart-stopping moment on a boat as you can have without actually being involved in one.
They would gasp and then get the explanation that if they needed to tie on the spare anchor or put a line around someone or something, it would not be on a nice sunny day but probably in the middle of the night during a rainstorm, and they better be able to do it.
Some actually tried and did it; the rest took my word for it.
Now that's really experiential learning, isn't it? And I'm sure Marty's students got the message. As luck would have it, I mastered the bowline while perched precariously on the sheer face of a frozen waterfall, while torrents of icy water cascaded over me. So I can attest to the efficacy of the cold‑shower approach to pedagogy.
Of course, there's more to painters than tying them on. It's equally important to make sure they don't get underfoot in the boat — and to keep them out of the water when you're under way. After all, …
Allowing a Painter to Trail …
Can be the prelude to a very bad day, as DB Weitzman points out:
I'm a fan and often send your articles to fellow paddlers who don't subscribe. You know there's a "but" coming, so here it is. I paddle the narrow flatwater rivers of the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. Beautiful, playful rivers that are littered with stumps and submerged limbs and branches. Snag hazards. And snag hazards also exist in the rocky rivers of north Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Allowing a painter to trail can cause substantial danger. I've had the experience of a snagged painter on a solo midwinter high-water paddle. Freeing my boat required me to cut the line after several near flips, given the working position. An inexperienced paddler may see some charm in a painter floating alongside the boat without knowing the danger it poses on some water. I buy boat line with braided loops on one end and loop the line around my bow carry handle.
Actually, DB and I are of one mind here. Even back in the day, when trailing painters were de rigueur in certain circles, as they were among some of the boaters I knew, I thought the practice was … well … barking mad. Which is why my earlier article included the following cautionary words:
[S]ome paddlers … 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.
I've added the emphasis to highlight my feelings on the subject. That said, there are very few rules so hard and fast that they admit of no exceptions. And I'm forced to concede that there just might be …
Times When Trailing a Painter Makes Good Sense
As James Stone, a veteran outdoorsman whose comments have often enlivened and enriched this column, makes clear:
Here is a situation which shouts for a trailing painter in some cases. A friend was sailing his boat alone on a freshwater (i.e., snowmelt-filled) reservoir near the Great Salt Lake on a balmy April day. The sun was out and very welcome after a long, gray winter. He was not wearing his PFD and was lying down enjoying the rays during a wind-slack period. He was jolted awake by a sudden gust, and while standing he was hit by the sail and knocked into the water. He spent a long time trying to catch his boat, which sailed off by itself. When he'd get to the boat and touch it, he would essentially be pushing it away (or such was my impression). He decided to swim to the very distant shore, realizing that he probably wasn't going to die after all, and would make it to land.
About that time, a couple of guys came by in a boat and "started playing 20 questions" with him: "Whatcha doin' out here?" and "Where's your boat?"
They eventually did retrieve him, and he did eventually catch up to his newly-for-sale sailboat. He also said that from then on he's trailed a painter from the boat so that he can have something to grab once he catches up to it. He made a desk plaque after the fashion of a pen, pencil, and notepad desk set. Upon it was a miniature life preserver sporting the fateful date as a conversation piece.
What do I conclude from this? First, that wearing a PFD is always a good idea in a boat. Any boat. And second, that a trailing painter might be a lifesaver if you go overboard while sailing alone in unobstructed waters — and canoeists and kayakers have often been known to sail their craft. In fact, the explosion of interest in recreational canoeing that followed the publication of John "Rob Roy" MacGregor's stirring tales, back in the 19th century, had as much to do with sailing as it did with paddling. Nor did working canoemen disdain the wind's assistance. The voyageurs rigged square sails on their big canoes whenever the Old Woman smiled (and the way ahead was free of rocks and rapids). Many modern boaters still follow their example.
This brings me to a third point, though it will only have meaning for sailors: It pays to balance your rig so that you always have a touch of "weather helm." Then, if the skipper ever parts company with his craft, she'll quickly round up into the wind and luff, rather than falling off and haring away, leaving the skipper paddling frantically (and probably fruitlessly) in her wake.
Enough sailor talk. Let's get back on course. DB deplores the practice of trailing painters — though I suspect he might agree with James that special circumstances dictate a flexible approach — but he doesn't go as far as Kent, who thinks painters, while useful, …
Are Best Kept Stowed, Not Secured
Moreover, since Kent is an old salt, whose trenchant letters have graced In the Same Boat on more than one occasion, his contrarian view certainly deserves close and careful consideration.
PAINTERS! Bah! Humbug!
Well, as I've said to you before, if there is ANY way to mess something up, I shall find it. Being an old ex-Navy boatswain's mate, I still like having a bit of line close at hand. I always kept a bow line on my motor boats. Kept plenty of spare line on my sailboats. I even keep plenty of line in my kayak. But I do not keep a bow or stern line tied to my kayak.
When I first began paddling, I kept both lines tied to my bow and stern grab loops. But, being me, I was paddling in a fairly strong current with my son. I got too close to shore, and an overhanging branch reached out and grabbed my stern line! I didn't want my son to see the old man tied to a bush, flailing away at thin air. I tried twisting the kayak around, hitting the branch with my paddle, jerking the boat back and forth, all to no avail. The limb was just big enough to hold me, too green for me to break. I couldn't reach the loop behind me, so I did what any proud ex-sailor would do in my situation — I yelled for my son. He untangled my line, but only after he made sure every person in sight saw me, finished making fun of "the old salt," and caught his breath from laughing. Oh, the indignity of it all!
Since that day, I make certain nothing is attached to my loops. In fact, I'm not so sure loops are such a good idea either! So, I use my bow line, stern line, and extra line to tie to trees, piers, and anchors. Why, I even used my stern line to pull my son to shore after he flopped over (hee-hee-hee!). I store one line in a sealed plastic coffee container, at my feet, inside the kayak. I tie them both to my Jeep to transport it, but I do not leave one tied to my bow or stern while paddling.
As for "poly line," that stuff is good for pulling a waterskier and that's it. The local crabbers won't even use it on their crab pots.
Be safe and stay well, and get that dang painter off your boat! I enjoyed your article greatly, as always. You manage to give me a memory flash in almost every article.
In case there's a vestige of doubt in any reader's mind, boatswain's mates are persons of considerable authority aboard a ship. It's a good bet that no one knows more about the vessel's rigging and day‑to‑day operations, and the "Boats"' opinions are always informed by long experience. That said, I'll continue to tie my painters on. But I certainly won't question Kent's decision to keep his stowed when under way. The snagging hazard is always present, and while coiling and tucking painters can reduce it, nothing short of bagging a coil and stowing it below decks will eliminate it altogether. The bottom line? Safety and convenience are always at odds, and each boater must strike the balance as he (or she) sees fit. In this instance, Kent and I come down on opposite sides of the question.
In the matter of poly line, however, we're in broad agreement. I've yet to find a laid (twisted) poly rope I'd use for anything other than packing material. But I've been pleasantly surprised by some of the kernmantel (braided core‑and‑sheath) poly lines I've seen, even the cheap stuff sold in big‑box stores. They've proven surprisingly tractable, and they hold a figure‑eight loop securely. (A bowline fares less well, however.) The upshot? Somewhat against my own inclinations, I've embraced them, at least for use as painters.
And painters are what this week's column is all about. One of the reasons I keep my painters tied on while under way is their ready availability when needed. But that doesn't really address the wide range of uses to which the painters are put, uses whose demands often conflict. Which brings up a critical point:
How Long Is Too Long?
David Shanteau of the Minnesota Canoe Association, an ACA canoeing instructor, has something to say about this, and a few other important things, as well:
Nice article. When a painter is used for lining or tracking it is best to attach it lower than most deck plates or handles allow.
On a whitewater canoe where a painter is used for rescues more than anything else, a painter that's three-quarters the length of the canoe is much easier to handle and less likely to become tangled.
I switch painters from boat to boat, and do not like to car-top boats with painters attached. For convenience I tie a loop with a figure-eight on a bight that is large enough to pass the coiled rope through. I can then wrap the loop end through a deck handle or deck's webbing loop, before passing the coil through the figure-eight loop, creating a quick and easily removed attachment. When not in use, I store one set of bow and stern lines, a throw-bag, a bailing bucket, and a sponge in a net bag ready to grab and go.
I saw the results of a person backing over a loose stern line on a car-topped canoe. The result was bent Royalex and broken gunwales. Some of my canoes have bungee cords installed and I tuck the painters under them. I like your trick of using the attaching loop.
There's no arguing with physics, and David's right to disparage the use of deck‑plate tie‑downs while tracking and lining. The lower down you can tie your line, the less likely it is that you'll pull a gunwale under when wrestling your boat free of the current's grip. Grumman's venerable "tin tanks" had stem‑mounted shackles that addressed this problem, at least to some extent, and many of the older guidebooks depicted more or less elaborate bridles that got the line right down at the keel. But here, too, convenience is at odds with safety. And in practice, I've found no real drawback to tying off to the deck (provided, of course, that the deck is securely attached to the gunwales).
Others have reached the same conclusion. In The Dangerous River, R. M. Patterson recounts how an old‑timer ridiculed his "insane" fixed bridle, and then rerigged his tracking line, tying it off to the nose of the canoe and the rear seat. It seems to have worked, though it has to be said that this doesn't refute the principles of physics. Low is still the way to go. If you can.
Painter length is another area where opinions blossom in a glorious profusion of contrary recommendations. While acknowledging that my 25‑foot painters present some danger of entanglement — though the danger shouldn't be very great when the line is coiled and the coil carefully stowed — I'd consider a nine‑foot painter on a 12‑foot canoe to be a little on the short side. On the other hand, Patterson seems to have used an 80‑foot line for nearly everything, and I'd think this much too long for a painter on anything smaller than an admiral's barge. Yet again, each boater must balance convenience (and utility) against safety, and then be prepared to accept the consequences of her decision.
While we're on the subject of safety, David's quick‑and‑easy method of attaching (and taming) painters is wonderfully ingenious, combining as it does both efficiency and security. In fact, I'll probably adopt it as my own. You can see one variant in Photo 1 below:
What did I tell you? David's "loop, stow, and go" technique is simple and good, and while it bears a superficial similarity to the "painter tuck" I've used in the past …
It goes the tuck one better, dispensing with the need for a grab loop. And David has also come up with a second variation on the theme, in which the painter is secured to a loop in the canoe's stem and then tucked under a deck‑mounted bungee (see Photo 2, above).
Of course, no painter can be relied on to do its job in perpetuity, but while nothing lasts forever, where rope is concerned …
A Little TLC Goes a Long Way
Rope's enemies include sunlight, heat, grit, and sharp edges. Even damp can take its toll. And whether you're afloat or ashore, none of these is hard to find. This led James Stone — whom we've already heard from once in this column — to some further reflections:
Because I use a kayak when waterfowling, I'm always in the water late in the year and sometimes when the weather is nasty. I need to pay a little better attention to my painter because I store the boat in the yard year-round, where it's leaned against the fence. I'm embarrassed to say the painter is probably in contact with the ground, too. I've used the boat two years with it stored like this. Granted, this is a part of the yard which gets the least sunlight and is best blocked from the weather, but that's also the side that stays moist the longest. But after reading your article, I plan on removing the painter at the end of the season to avoid light and weather reaching it.
Good advice, that. I'm still using painters — for light‑duty applications, only, I might add — that I got more than a quarter‑century ago. But then I rinse my painters thoroughly after each trip and store them inside, in a cool, dry, airy place. If my life should ever hang by a thread of line someday, I want that line to be in the best condition possible.
And on that note, I'll wrap this up. My thanks to everyone who wrote around my first article on the subject. I've learned a lot from you, and I'm sure others will, too. There's plenty of food for thought in your letters — and not a single empty calorie to be found anywhere!
Who'd have guessed that a column about short lengths of rope would elicit much mail? I certainly wouldn't have. But In the Same Boat's many knowledgeable readers have proved me wrong, demonstrating that there are as many lines on painters as there are paddlers. So this time around, I've turned the floor over to you, and you've shown yet again that, however much our individual interests may differ, we really are all in the same boat.
Related Articles From In the Same Boat
- "Learning the Ropes: The Line on Painters"
- Ropework for Paddlers, a comprehensive index to other articles from In the Same Boat on rope and its uses, including …
- "Starting Out: Getting to Know the Ropes,"
- "Learning the Ropes: Whip 'em Into Line!" and …
- "Learning the Ropes: A Knotty Problem — Solved!"
- Plus an article on one situation where painters can really make a difference:
"Follow That Boat! Recovering a Swamped Kayak in Fast Water."
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