With Enough Rope…
We’re intoxicated by technology. And that “we” includes many canoeists and kayakers, who salivate over everything that’s new and shiny in the shops. But our ability to do what needs to be done, both on the water and off, not infrequently depends on modern incarnations of Stone Age technologies. Take rope, for instance. Tamia always does, and that’s why rope is the subject of her latest SameBoat Short.
by Tamia Nelson | January 2, 2018
Rope is remarkable stuff. Give a girl enough rope and she can line a canoe down a rapids, rescue a partner marooned on a midstream rock, haul a food pack so high that only flying squirrels can get at it, or shape a simple tarp into a shelter that will defy a gale of wind. And none of these things can be done without rope, which is why ropes — among man’s earliest inventions — are found on every canoeist’s and kayaker’s gear list. Of course, our ropes aren’t plaited from the natural fibers that our Stone Age ancestors used. They’re manufactured from nylon, polyester, or polypropylene. There’s a fourth alternative, as well: Spectra, an olefin fiber developed for the running rigging of sailboats. It’s now used in some “professional” rescue throw bags, but Spectra isn’t cheap, and since throw bags are short‑lived affairs, it makes sense only if you can afford to toss your money away.
So… Just how do the “big three” — nylon, polyester, and polypropylene — differ? Put simply, nylon rope is strong and stretchy, while polyester is both less elastic and somewhat less strong. (But unlike nylon, it retains more of its strength when wet. That’s a plus.) And polypropylene? It’s the weakest of the three. It’s also slippery, hard to hold and hard to knot. Moreover, sunlight breaks down the fibers, and once a polypro rope has seen hard use, it can be nasty stuff to handle. It floats, though, and for this reason polypro is often used in throw bags.
Think rope is simple? It’s not. Try making some. Or if that’s too much trouble, take a look at this:
Laid rope is built up from plaited strands, and each strand is made from yarns, produced by twisting individual fibers together. Most of the laid rope you’ll find in hardware stores and yacht chandleries is “hawser‑laid,” the type shown in the illustration: three‑strand, with a right‑hand (or “Z‑twist”) lay. It’s relatively inexpensive, easy to splice, and perfectly adequate for most purposes.
Braided rope (aka kernmantel, or “core‑and‑sheath”) has an even more complex structure and is somewhat harder to splice. It’s also more costly. Still, all other things being equal, braided rope is slightly less stretchy than laid rope, and while stretch isn’t something most paddlers worry about, braided rope is also less inclined to tangle. That can be very important whenever seconds count.
The bottom line? Use braided rope in throw bags, and hawser‑laid rope for everything else. Painters are probably best made of polyester — it’s less elastic, after all — but I’ve always found that nylon works fine. In fact, a bit of stretch in a tow line may sometimes be a good thing. Don’t use any rope less than ¼ inch (6 mm) in diameter, though. Not only is smaller‑diameter line weaker, but it can cut your hands badly under load.
How long should a rope be? That depends. Seventy‑five feet is about right for a rescue rope, but 15 feet is probably enough for a kayak tow line. I prefer 25‑foot painters in my canoes, however, and I also keep one or two 50‑foot coils handy for lining and tracking. Back in the fur trade days, when crews had to haul loaded canoes and York boats up big northern rivers, tracking lines as long as 150 feet were used. Just remember, though — you can’t push with a rope. The longer your tracking line, the harder it is to keep your boat under control, and once it gets away from you in a swift current, it’s gone, likely taking you with it.
Speaking of hard chances, it’s surprisingly easy to catch a foot or arm in a stray bight of rope. When tracking or lining, therefore, keep a sharp knife handy, preferably one with a fixed blade and a sheepsfoot point. But while it’s obviously important to look after yourself, your rope needs care, as well. Never, ever, stand on a rope. And though polyester is less subject to “sunburn” than nylon, ultraviolet radiation attacks all synthetic fibers, so shield working ropes from the sun’s rays whenever possible. (Cotton drill sample bags make good rope bags, providing protection and reducing the risk of dangerous tangles at the same time.) Dirt and grit take their toll, too. Rinse dirty ropes in clean, cool water as soon as possible, drying them thoroughly afterward.
Even with the best of care, however, no rope lasts forever. Inspect all your ropes after every trip, and retire any that show signs of damage. A little surface fuzz on the strands or sheath isn’t a cause for concern, but cuts and abrasions are, and it’s not a bad idea to replace tracking and rescue lines after three seasons of use, no matter what their apparent condition. When someone’s life or property hangs in the balance, it’s better to be safe than sorry. ‘Nuff said?
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