Know-How: Marlinspike Seamanship in the Arctic - Sail Magazine

I was crewing aboard a boat named Breskell, a 51ft cutter-rigged, cold-molded, mahogany sloop. We were voyaging from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Port Townsend, Washington, via the Northwest Passage. A few days before setting sail, the captain, Olivier Huin, asked me to secure everything on deck—everything being propane tanks, water jugs, gasoline and diesel cans, fuel bladders, the outboard engine, the dinghy and, later, the bowsprit. He pointed to a bucket of short, frayed, “end of life” line and a lumber pile over by the boatyard garbage bin. He looked me in the eye and said in his thick French accent, “It needs to survive a knockdown, but not necessarily a capsize. Thank you so much.”

I swallowed hard and contemplated the task before me. Whatever I came up with would need to hold for over 6,600 miles. I wasn’t sure what kinds of seas we’d encounter, but I knew I didn’t want to be responsible for losing anything overboard. I also knew that if the going got rough and anything did come loose, it would be too late for do-overs. Luckily, I enjoy working with rope, and I wasn’t going to say no anyway, so I went for it. Time would tell if my solutions would be up to the challenge of the voyage ahead.

The first stop was the lumber pile. What I wanted was two boards, ideally 2in-by-6in-by-8ft. These would span a pair of stanchions to either side of Breskell’s foredeck, acting as rails to which I could lash the extra propane tanks, emergency water jugs, outboard gasoline cans and a jug of diesel. They could also double as fender boards, if necessary, along the way. After a bit of digging around, I was fortunate enough to find two boards that would serve my purpose. They didn’t match, weren’t the ideal dimensions and one would need shortening. But they would suffice.

After that, I drilled a few holes in the boards and found some short lines in the bucket with which I lashed the planks to the stanchions alongside the lower lifelines. I then attached four propane tanks and two water jugs to the starboard side, and three gasoline cans, the jug of diesel and another propane tank to port. To do the job, I used a combination of bowlines, sheet bends, round turns and hitches. It didn’t have to look pretty, but it also couldn’t be an “if you can’t tie a knot, tie a lot” situation. The gear needed to be well secured, but also intuitive and easy to untie in a hurry on a rolling, pounding boat in the icy cold.

Eventually, after employing a little bit of vision and a whole lot of trial and error, I lashed the tanks and jugs through their handles and then intertwined them together around their bases. The starboard side was easier, due to the consistency of the shapes I had to work with. The port side was tougher, because every can, jug and tank were different.

Next came the dinghy. This was a two-piece affair bolted together amidships. For stowage while at sea, we stored the forward half over the aft cabin and the aft half over the foredeck. At the captain’s request, I fastened four pieces of webbing to the deck with screws, two for each dinghy piece. The shells were then put into place and the straps slipped up and over them. After that I used some bits of line to draw the straps together, sweating things up tight and then finishing them off with a double hitch. This arrangement made for easy deployment and re-stowing. I also attached the bow and stern painters to the mast pulpit and stern arch “just in case.”

The fuel bladders’ rings were not to be trusted (left); The author used a series of marline hitches to secure the sprit to the stern arch (right).

The fuel bladders’ rings were not to be trusted (left); The author used a series of marline hitches to secure the sprit to the stern arch (right).

Though Breskell is a sailboat, transiting the Northwest Passage in a single season requires a reliable diesel engine and the fuel to feed it. Breskell has two internal tanks, holding about 53 gal each, but this was not going to be sufficient to travel from one fuel depot to the next, and also have an adequate reserve. The captain’s solution was to carry an additional six, 26-gal, diesel bladders on deck, which proved to be the items that were tied and untied most frequently. In the end, we refilled them six times over the course of the voyage, which resulted in their lashings not only evolving, but becoming increasingly systematic.

Since diesel weighs around 7lb per gallon, each bladder tipped the scales at about 180lb when full. Unfortunately, the metal rings that came with them were dubiously attached and couldn’t be trusted in rough weather. In the final evolution, I wrapped a line around each bladder three times. Included in this wrap was the deck-level rope used for the lifeline netting. I then anchored the ends to the base of a stanchion or the arch. If there was any extra, I would cinch the wraps together to further tighten the line and then end it with a hitch. Since my bucket was full of odds and ends, more than one of the bladders had several lines chained together with sheet bends to gain sufficient length to do the trick.

Midway through the voyage, in Nome, Alaska, we removed the bowsprit while doing an anchor stem repair. Afterward, the captain decided we wouldn’t be needing the sprit for the remainder of the voyage and asked me to secure it somewhere. After looking around awhile, I chose to tie it to the stern arch vertically. I started with a bowline up top, followed by a series of marline hitches along the length of the sprit, sweating them tight on the way down and finishing things off with a trucker’s hitch.

As for the various other odds and ends that needed to be secured, I used the ever-reliable, quick-release, clove hitch for the fenders on the stern rail and any extra lines on the mast pulpit, often adding a hitch for extra security. On the boat’s sugar-scoop stern, we had a crab pot lashed to the Aries wind vane extension rails. Similarly, the outboard motor, mounted on the mast pulpit, was further lashed to keep it from rotating and obstructing the side decks. The captain also added a rope harness for hoisting it on and off the boat with a halyard.

The Northwest Passage in the Canadian archipelago is sheltered from large waves, due to ice and limited fetch. However, notorious waters bookend it. Our second day out from St. John’s, a pair of raucous storms caught up with us in the Labrador Sea, testing my work with 40-knot winds and plenty of waves coming on deck. The lashings were a success, though this was where I also first learned about the dubiously attached metal rings on the diesel bladders. Though the bladders remained secure, one of the rings tore out. I vowed never to rely on them again.

On the western side of the passage, as the season progressed and the weather deteriorated, the gear survived yet more pounding in the Dolphin and Union Strait. The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas also proved to be hilly, and the Bering “Washing Machine” Sea, confused.

The biggest test of all came on the stretch from the Aleutians to Port Townsend. As we skirted the Gulf of Alaska in mid-September, a series of weather systems marched from west to east, with a blow every three days. Forty-plus knot winds, mountainous seas and boarding waves would sometimes pin the boat on a 25-degree angle of heel for hours on end. During one particularly intense storm, we hove-to but were still rolled over and over again, 30 degrees to either side, with waves filling the cockpit.

Throughout the voyage, I kept a watchful eye on the deck gear. As it was shuffled around and used by myself and others, I would reinspect or re-secure the lashings to my satisfaction. While I have seen slicker setups with matching jerry cans, nylon webbing straps, strategically placed pad eyes and barrels for diesel, Breskell transited successfully and everything stayed put, even if the end result did look a little old-fashioned. It was an exercise in following your dreams, marlinspike seamanship and working within your available means. 

June 2020


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