#AntarcticAlphabet: R is for rope

R is for rope. The rhythm of coils passed hand to hand, or turned upon the deck in line with the lay. Wrapped round and hung, ready to hand, on pins and cleats, belayed and standing-by for work. Rope is part of the trinity of sail and hull harnessing the wind. Rope is magic and hard reality.

The lay of the strand, wire rope or cable, is the direction in which the helix of the wires orbit the core. www.thecableconnection.com 

Rope is magic, invisible in the poetry of shrouds and stays, the cables holding the masts in place. It disappears into the language of the wooden world, the ship at sea. Every line has a name. Clew, buntline, halyard, sheet. Jackstay and tack, cringle and strop; a functional verse matching the practical romance of movement in gravity, wind and wave. Small stuff or as big round as your waist, cordage always has a place, a role. The precision in its poetry  saves your life.

Rope is reality. The man rope guides the pilot on board, the man (almost certainly a man) to take you through disputed waters. The tow rope, stowed against near-disaster, yours or another’s, to pull a boat away from rocks. And the bell-rope, taking us back to the magic, the invisible nature of time. We all know eight bells and all’s well even if the division of shifts into watches only lingers in the wizardry on our wrists. Rope has tensile strength and breaking strain, diameter and weight (not inconsiderable weight, calculated with care by racers and engineers). And you can break most things with a bit of rope applied with nicety and a windlass. You can surely break your boat.

Rope, of course, binds. It twists and tangles before emerging as a knot, a hitch or a bend. Secrets hide in plain sight: the strength of Queen Bowline (unreliable when loose), the riches of the crown sennit and the double diamond, the joker reef knot (sticks when wet) and the muscular trucker’s hitch. The arts of marlinspike and fid create the splice and the lashing, the whipping and the making do. A knot will be weaker than the rope it sits in; a splice round a steel thimble is better but must be tested for your expected load. The rigging and lines, the knots and turnbuckles must be right when you leave, and must be tended constantly at sea, even if the jury rig (and luck) are good enough to get you home.

Rope is made stuff, though it evolves. Old as time yet high-tech, the cutting edge of possibility. Egyptians wove palm leaves and Polynesians rolled coconut fibre on their thighs; Europeans turned hessian on hooks in long rope walks still visible in our streets. Central to the spread of peoples, rope’s history is strangely hidden, cordage an unsung industry. Today in robot factories hundreds of bobbins spin in unison, braiding synthetic string stronger than steel for racing yachts, for air-craft and to keep astronauts tethered to humanity. Tomorrow, maybe, the space elevator will be the longest steel strand yet made. But small ships will still creep across our oceans, checking daily for chafe in the ancient manner.

Rope is rhythm, rope is real; advanced manufacturing and everyday magic. When you fish out string to stake a plant, you hold time in your hand.

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