Short course focuses on tying the knots Twisted art: A former Coast Guardsman takes the art of knotting from hobby to community college classroom.

April 16, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Every Boy Scout and sailor learns them: clove hitches, sheet bends, half hitches and bowlines -- knots to tie ropes together or to something.

Wesley E. Sullivan III learned them as a Scout in East Baltimore years ago. But unlike most boys, he didn't forget them when he grew up. Knotting became both a hobby and an integral part of various jobs -- and now the subject of a course he is teaching at Dundalk Community College. Mr. Sullivan, 60, who has taught boating safety and knotting for the Coast Guard since the early 1980s, will teach students working for a state boat operator's certificate how to tie basic knots that have application on modern sail and power boats.

With a few twists of his hands, the Kensington resident also can whip off sophisticated knots such as the pedigreed cow hitch, the constrictor knot, the Portuguese bowline and the zeppelin bend -- the latter a knot developed in the 1930s to secure moored airships.

They are just a few of the hundreds of knots -- many equally exotically named -- that Mr. Sullivan has mastered as a Scout, Chesapeake Bay boater and commercial crabber, Coast Guardsman and before-the-mast sailor aboard the replica of HMS Bounty built for the Marlon Brando movie version of the famous mutiny.

As a hobby, knot-tying is fun, good therapy and a way to keep fingers supple. But every knot is invented for a specific purpose, said Mr. Sullivan, a member of the London-based International Guild of Knot Tyers, which monitors developments in the field.

The search for more efficient ways to tie lines is as constant as the search for a better mousetrap, he said. The art evolves as new knots and variations on old knots are being invented to meet the demands of activities and rope technology, he said.

Rock and mountain climbers are the current innovators, he said, devising new knots to deal with the thinner, synthetic rope made of nylon, Dacron or polypropylene that has all but replaced the natural fiber rope of hemp, manila, coir, cotton and flax that was used for centuries.

"Climbers want knots they know won't slip," Mr. Sullivan explained. "Many of the traditional knots don't hold on the synthetics, which have a lower coefficient of friction than natural fibers. With the synthetics, you have to put more surface to surface to make them hold, and climbers were dissatisfied with the traditional sailors' knots."

Although many traditional knots disappeared from the nautical vocabulary when steam replaced sail at sea, some variations are being resurrected to meet new conditions, said Mr. Sullivan, who retired in September after a career as an industrial safety manager for the federal government and in the trucking industry.

His course will demonstrate how to splice -- weaving two pieces of line together or into a loop -- as well as knot; how to whip the end of a line so it will not unravel; and how to turn line into a sturdy rope ladder. (Rope becomes "line" when it is pulled from its box or reel and cut for use.)

Other practical items include knotted monkey fists on the end of light heaving lines, used to help get heavy mooring lines from ship to dock, and lead lines, used to check depth in water too shallow for electronic depth finders.

Mr. Sullivan also will introduce some of rope's decorative uses, the pride of salty boatswain's mates who will wrap Turk's heads -- woven like turbans -- and cockscombs around everything in sight aboard ship, or tie shredded canvas into intricate lacework.

Mr. Sullivan was invited to join Dundalk after his name came up during a discussion about ideas for courses, said Pat Turnbaugh, director of continuing education. "I was amazed at him," she said.

Safety certificate

Maryland requires all registered boat operators born after July 1, 1972, to obtain a boating safety certificate to operate in Maryland waters.

Dundalk Community College is offering the two-day certification courses May 10-11, June 7-8 and July 12-13. Hours are 6: 30 p.m. to 9: 30 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 12: 30 p.m. Saturday. The $15 course will include rules of the water, navigation, boating equipment and safety rules.

Wesley E. Sullivan III will teach "Knotting Techniques for Boaters" Friday and Saturday; May 17-18 and June 12-13. The course will cost $40, and the hours will be the same as for boating safety.

Information: (410) 285-9859.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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