Rope is the wheel of the ocean. Man has used it to bind together and control materials for millennia, from raftsmen navigating the rabid waters of the Nile to nomadic whale hunters rolling over the dark fathoms of the sea. It is a tool that predates all but the most rudimentary instruments of survival — the sharpened stone, the blunt hand tool — and like these objects, versions of it are found in nature: the vine, the twisted branches of plants, even the muscle fiber beneath your skin.
Rope was there when massive materials were hoisted up to build ancient cities like Baalbek, it was what first tethered Europeans to the New World. Think of that fateful line slinking in the pristine West Indian water, or coarsely tearing up the hands of a desert slave. The cord they severed between you and your mother when you were born, or the line they carefully looped around the throat of John Brown.
Physically strong by nature, rope’s interlocking fibers make a cord that is then braided or twisted in opposite directions over two or more versions of itself. The structure gives it a lightness and tensile strength that cannot be replicated, one that seems to have been drawn on the same board as our muscle, even our DNA.
The strength of each individual fiber is made stronger from being coiled around a linear structure. The resulting unified mass is stronger than its individual parts. Technological advances in materials, starting with Nylon in the 1930s and careening into the polymers and carbon fibers of today, have meant that the best ropes available are largely unbreakable, which is to say we’ve come a long way since the Incas were weaving together grass to make the Bridge of San Luis Rey. Poor Ernesto, the seafaring hopeful of the story, never had a chance to feel the large hemp locks of a ship; he plummeted to his death instead when the lesser line of the footbridge snapped.
Prevalent as it was in the ancient world, rope has yet to fall by the wayside. In fact, the age-old structure is replacing newer, previously hailed materials. Racing catamarans are the latest weaponry in the America’s Cup races. Unlike the bulky, cumbersome yachts of old, these boats are lightweight, high-speed racers, and rope comprises more and more of the boat — parts that were previously made of something else. Rope is replacing the metal in the wires and the fiberglass in the blocks. The very ground on which the sailors stand, under which the ocean passes as if in a trance, is made up of rope tied into countless knots.
NOT EVERYONE CAN BE A BOY SCOUT Rope is still being made from manila, sisal, hemp, jute, cotton and other natural materials and there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be: they’re readily available, affordable and useful. For most uses, these plant fibers still provide a reliable, workable structure.
Sports like high-speed sail racing demand more from their lines due to the rigors the sailors subject them to: constant, full-tilt use under the destructive forces of sunlight and water. The competitive nature of the sport and the wealth associated with it means that no expense is spared. Braid-on-braid cords are space age, chemically-bonded, intricately woven aramid (popularly known as Kevlar) or high modulus polyethylene coated with Zylon.
That’s all well and good when you’re cranking a winch in high wind, the ocean spraying your comrades and threatening to take you all in, but what about the rest of us? It turns out there are a few things about rope that every man, woman and child should know.
First is the bowline (pronounced bo-lin) knot. This favorite of sailors is quick to tie, very strong, easy to form a loop with, and easy to undo by breaking its back and loosening the structure. It’s great if you need to tie something heavy up quick, or form a loop that won’t budge.
Next is the eye splice. Knots are great, but tend to weaken the rope’s load bearing capacity by 40% by putting all the pressure on one spot in the rope instead of spreading it out along the line. For more permanent structures, or when losing control of the rope would mean sudden danger or death, such as on a mooring a boat, hoisting a piano, and mounting heavy things on the wall, use a splice. They’re stronger, harder to undo, and more capable of holding a load without breaking. Practice on some cheap, three-braid nylon rope from the hardware store.
Also, steer clear of any rope that’s frayed, damaged from excessive heat or sun, or been in such a damp and dark spot that it’s molded.
When used within reason, rope generally doesn’t break but is cut by the friction caused by resting on an edge. Consider it the next time you tie your shoe, or pull down the shade, or come across some in the garage. Grip it with both hands and pull on it as if you’d pull it apart. Take a closer look. Between your fingers, even woven under the skin of your hands, is the stuff that holds everything together in a world that ceaselessly threatens to rip itself apart.