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The Things We Carry

Secrets of My Ditty Bag

By Tamia Nelson

June 19, 2001

I've been a canoeist since I was a girl, and a kayaker for almost twenty years. That's not to say that I haven't wavered in my faith now and again, though. Some years back, Farwell and I flirted with the idea of moving house and home into a gaff-rigged, carvel-planked schooner. Fortunately, we came to our senses before we took the plunge, but we've both hung on to the skills we picked up while we were getting ready to run away to sea. Farwell still hauls out our sextant from time to time, just to see if continental drift has carried us across the border into Canada. (It hadn't the last time he checked.) We've also brought the sextant along on paddling trips up North, where it's helped us "stay found" in an all but featureless landscape of string bog and stunted spruce.

As useful as celestial navigation can be, though, it just isn't my forte. I enjoy the ritual of the noon sight, I admit, but I'm less interested in spherical trig than Farwell is. During our blue-water days, therefore, I left him to struggle on alone with the American Practical Navigator and the Nautical Almanac, while I steeped myself in bo'sun's lore instead. Marlinspike seamanship—the art and science of knotting, splicing, and rigging—was something I could really sink my teeth into. I'd been fascinated by ropes and rope-work ever since I took up climbing as a school-girl. After all, when you're clinging to the face of a frozen waterfall, depending on four crampon points, an ice-axe, a Terrordactyl, and a single 11-mm kernmantle rope to keep you safely suspended over a yawning abyss, you develop quite an interest in the security of that rope, and in the knots that tie you to it.

Moving from ice-climbing to rigging was surprisingly easy, I found. I really enjoyed learning the ropes. I mastered long, short and eye-splices, repaired torn canvas using a herringbone stitch and patches, and practiced tying a whole new repertoire of knots with wonderfully evocative names: carrick bend, Spanish bowline, shiver hitch, even the sinister-sounding strangle knot.

I also made a ditty bag. It's not much to look at, I'm afraid, particularly when compared with the fancywork masterpieces that old square-rigger sailors used to turn out. It's just a round-bottomed canvas sack about six inches in diameter and a little more than a foot high, with a lanyard and a turk's head slider to close it off. It originally held my sailmaking and rigging kit. Nowadays it holds a selection of repair tools and materials, along with some odds and ends that don't seem to fit in anywhere else. And it goes with me on almost every trip away from my home waters.

Let's dump it out on the desk and see what's in it, shall we?

First, there's my clasp knife. It, too, is disappointingly plain—a Currey Lockspike Bo'sun, with a riveted stainless steel body, a 2½-inch blade ending in a sheep's-foot point, a stubby marlinspike, a shackle key, and a lanyard swivel. That's it. No corkscrew. No nail-scissors. No magnifying lens. But the blade is as sharp as I can make it, and I keep it that way with a small, two-grit pocket stone that also travels (in it's own leather pouch) in the ditty bag. Scissors are fine around the house, but nothing matches a sharp knife when it comes to cutting rope or canvas.

The Bo'sun isn't my only knife, of course. Whenever I'm in a boat or working around rope, I carry a fixed-blade knife on my life-jacket or belt, or tucked into a boot-top, secure in a snug-fitting, metal-lined sheath. But when I need to trim a canvas patch to size in order to repair a pack or tarp, or when I want to cut a rope to length, I haul out my clasp knife.

OK. That takes care of knife and whetstone. What else do I carry in my ditty bag? A sailmaker's "palm," for one thing. It's an awkward-looking contrivance at first glance, a sort of cross between a giant's thimble and surgical truss. You slip it over your thumb and around your hand, positioning a dimpled metal plate securely over the meaty swelling known to anatomists as the thenar. If you've ever tried to sew several thicknesses of heavy canvas together, you'll know why it's needed. Needles—even sharp needles—have to be pushed hard. Without something to protect your hand, you're as likely to drive a needle into your flesh as through the canvas. But a sailmaker's palm lets you shove a needle home through even the heaviest fabrics without fear.

Speaking of needles, I carry a good supply of them, too: a waterproof plastic tube of 20 "Best Cast Steel Sail Makers Needles," in sizes from #14 to #18 (the smaller the number, the larger the needle), made by W. Smith & Son of Redditch, England. Waterproof tube or not, steel needles rust quickly if they aren't well-greased. I use plain petroleum jelly to keep corrosion at bay, and I use it on all my knives, as well, whether or not they're made of stainless steel. I even used it on the barrels of my Arrieta double. Petroleum jelly lacks the cachet of RIG and other proprietary greases, to be sure, but I've never found anything better—or cheaper!

Needles are useless without thread, of course, and my ditty bag holds a generous supply of polyester twine, both 3- and 7-ply, along with a big block of beeswax to stabilize and lubricate the doubled twine before stitching. In addition, I carry a hank of tarred marline for whipping the ends of rope to prevent them unravelling. The marline imparts a wonderful tarry smell to everything in the ditty bag. A half-dozen lengths of braided nylon "decoy anchor cord" rounds out my inventory. There's nothing better for replacing broken boot-laces or pack draw-strings, or for fashioning a chin-strap for a brimmed hat that threatens to blow away.

Patching material, too, is necessary, and my ditty bag contains scraps of fabric ranging from light rip-stop nylon to heavy proofed canvas, in sizes from a few square inches to several square feet. I also carry several pieces of leather and an assortment of hammer-set copper rivets—just what's needed for repairing torn pack-straps.

There's more. Among the odds and ends which have accumulated alongside the tools and repair materials are a spare compass (a small folding Silva Huntsman), one of many match-safes that are scattered around my gear, and a couple of tiny, folding can-openers taken from packs of old-style C-rations. I don't carry many canned foods these days, but when I do, I like to be able to open them with a minimum of fuss and bother. The military can-openers have few equals here. They're far better than the can-openers found on most utility knives, in fact, and the square base also makes a surprisingly good screwdriver.

That's about it. With only these few tools, bits of twine, and scraps of cloth I can repair a torn tent or pack, replace the seat of a pair of jeans, or cut a painter to length, whipping one end and forming an eye-splice in the other. More importantly, perhaps, I'm also helping to keep alive a whole array of once-vital skills, developed and elaborated over hundreds of years of history but now nearly extinct. It's almost a form of witness—a celebration of human ingenuity and our fidgety species' astonishing persistence in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Of the many things we carry, this may just be the most important one of all.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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