A friend of mine asked me why I had buttons hanging from some knots. I thought that if they didn’t fully understand, then surely some of you might not.
In the late 1970’s I had the good fortune to spend some time with an elderly English gentleman. He was a naturalized citizen by way of reward for having a couple of ships shot out from under him while serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine service during World War II.
In his youth he had sailed on some of the last guano clippers. But wait … I feel a vibration in the void … stronger now … the strings and knots in strings that make up physical existence are asking …What the hell is a guano clipper?
The clipper ships were the zenith of commercial sailing ships. Everything was designed around one task: to bring a small but highly valued cargo to market as quickly as possible. Acres of the finest canvas strained against the best lines made, to move hundreds of tons of beautifully formed wood. Coming into port three days ahead of your competition would pay off the vessel and make you a fortune. Three days late and you still made some money, and got no bragging rights. This name of this cargo? Not gold or jewels, not exotically beautiful concubines from the orient, nor opium, or cocaine. Tea was the cargo that made the great trading companies rich, paid off bets on the fastest passage in every pub, and paid the taxes that propped up governments.
The clippers then fell from grace – a change in markets and technology and peoples made them unprofitable. Ships which carried full sail in storms that made other vessels labor, hauled to under fully reefed sails. Their sailing masters could and would push vessel and men to the point just shy of breaking, and hold them there for days and weeks. Not even beauty under sail or paying off on bets on speed for fastest passage could stop the changing times.
Guano, the major cargo of these grand ladies now fallen, is bird crap. The finest of foul smelling, corrosive aged crap from million of sea birds deposited over centuries, was the best and cheapest fertilizer of its day. The clippers waited in line for months for a turn at the loading chutes, to be filled with loose bulk loads of guano. They sailed with ship and men covered in a coat of this powder that could burn out your nose, so that decades later this gentleman could taste only the strongest flavors. The storms met rounding the horn were the only things that cleaned the ships.
Having sailed as a young man just before the clippers fell from their apogee, he stayed with the only trade he knew. He did rise from seaman to bosun’s apprentice. Working aloft at night on pressing repairs you had no light other than, perhaps, a half moon hidden behind scudding storm clouds. Lanterns were expensive, dangerous, an extra burden, and perhaps their greatest fault, non-traditional. They had always done it this way, thus always would. Reaching into your tool bucket you needed a way to tell them apart. Some tools also required some means of telling which way the tools lay in your hand. The bosun he worked under had taught him to put button knots of different kinds on his tools, and he taught me. Another advantage he didn’t mention but that I observed was that it greatly improves your grip. The knot tied so it lies snuggly against the outside of your fist lets you retain your tool when your grip loosens. If you tie it so it lies between your two middle fingers, you can hold the tool by the button and have your thumb and forefinger free for some minor task of manipulation.
The bosun learned from those before, he learned from the bosun, and I from him. The reason we all kept doing it was that it worked to our advantage.
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