Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Work That's Never Done

My mother's mother, half French, half Irish and all of both, used to repeat the time worn phrase "Man may work from sun to sun but a woman's work is never done" until my mother would ask her to knock it off. Which was weird because my mother started repeating it with regularity at some point. I'm waiting for that gene to kick in with a certain amount of dread.

But I've a suspicion that it won't only because I have so much of the sailor in me. Woman's work may indeed never be done. So too, a sailor's work is forever and constant. Today's tool is something of a nautical symbol of the unending need to keep things "ship shape".

The marline-spike, an example of which is shown above, is the kind of multipurpose tool that makes sailors happy. You can do a lot with that sharp sturdy piece of metal, from stick a fish to finish off an enemy. It's intended purpose, though, is the chore of marling which is more familiarly called splicing by land. The needle end is used to pull rope apart in tact so that the three separate strands can be spliced and/or knotted in innumerable ways for countless tasks.

A rope thus loosened and spliced to another may be used for lead lines or fishing lines. There is also a splice used specifically for rope that will run through a hole block or block and tackle because of its added strength. All types of "long splice" as these are called are exceedingly necessary aboard a sailing ship. And the work keeps crewmen busy in calms, at anchor or when the ship is favored with good wind and weather.

Another such tool, different but serving a similar purpose, is known as a fid. This is a piece of wood in the same cone-like shape tapering to a point. Fids come in a range of sizes and are frequently used for large cable. They are sometimes improperly referred to as marline-spikes as well and the confusion can be imagined when one looks at this picture of a modern fid: Prior to the late 19th century, fids were exclusively made of wood and varied in size. The marline-spike was a metal tool that was rarely longer than ten inches. It was much easier to keep track of which was which before the American Civil War.

The marline-spike itself was so ubiquitous to sailing that, during the late 18th century and particularly by the Napoleonic Wars, it had become a symbol of the common sailor in the Royal Navy. Sons of wealthy and genteel families who joined the Navy and rose through the ranks quickly due to influence were said to have "never touched a marline-spike". It was the hard working "foremast" leaders who tended to get in and do the skut work with the lads. Those guys knew how to splice a line, and were popular commanders for it. Royal Navy officers would also refer to U.S. Navy officers as "marline-spikers", meaning they were nothing but glorified jacks. And what is the matter with that?

But even Captain Thomas Lord Cochrane, 1oth Earl of Dondonald, knew how to dress for success and identify himself as a true Royal Navy man. You may remember the autobiographical vignette in which he is invited to a masque put on by French aristocrats in Malta in January of 1801. Cochrane dresses as a foremast jack, saying that "...not even the marinspike or the lump of grease in the hat [were] omitted". Read about how thrilled the exhiled Monsieurs were with his costume over here.

Much like an anchor or ship's wheel, the marline-spike was the quintessential symbol of men who worked hard at sea. Even when hard work was just about everyone's daily reality, these guys were never really done.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Oh, those sailors. Workin' hard, playin' hard, just livin' the dream, baby!... Just like you, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! As Renato Beluche once said, "...and what is the matter with that?"

Timmy! said...

"He's just a grunt! No offense..."

Pauline said...

I think a lot of these guys I research and write about would simply respond just like Hicks: "None taken."