Many years ago Peter Bates, the most talented rigger I’d ever known, burnt himself out working in our loft, literally exhausted himself into a hospital bed, trying to keep my labor- and skill-intensive, poorly-managed business afloat. He recovered, but moved over to the relatively easygoing trade of house construction. Yes, I realize that one would not ordinarily put “easygoing” and “house construction” in the same sentence. That should give you an idea of how crazy things were in my loft.
We are still close friends, and his spouse Jen works for us now, at a moderate and seemly pace. When she told him about last week’s puzzle “Depose the Bowline,“ he thought about it a bit, and then sent me the following inspired and inspiring essay. Thank you, Peter.
In Praise of the Star Knot
The Bowline is one of the most well-known knots in the world, and with good reason. It is fast and easy to tie, secure, jam-resistant, and endlessly useful. It can, and often is, asked to perform duties other knots are more suited to: two bowlines instead of a bend, for example, to tie two ropes together, or instead of a Brummel for jibsheets, or possibly even in place of Butterfly loop for an emergency sling. Yes, the mighty Bowline is indeed the King of Knots, and it may even save your life one day. So, hooray for the Bowline! However, while it may save your life, there is one thing it can never do: save your soul. For that we must look to a knot much less well-known, the Star Knot.
But wait, the Star Knot is just a decorative button, I hear you say. Almost nobody has ever heard of it, let alone tried to tie it. This is, of course, true. A decorative button has almost no practical use unless we want to stretch the definition of useful to include lanyards and bell pulls and the like. Most people do not have the time or patience to learn how to tie a decorative but “useless” knot. But the world would be a better place if they did.
A Star Knot requires practice and patience to learn how to tie, and even then it is never quick to tie. You will never tie it with one hand while holding onto a shroud in a gale, but we can’t live in emergency mode all the time. If we sit down for an afternoon or an evening to learn a new skill with our hands, we might find a connection to beauty we were unaware of before. We would have to slow our thoughts, concentrate, and engage with the physical world in a calm and deliberate way. We might even gain a sense of perspective on what is really important in life. And here’s the thing…
I have never completed a Star Knot.
In my rigging days I looked down on this knot as a time waster. An interloper in the production schedule of the busy loft, not unlike a friendly older gentleman who might want to stand around and tell stories when there was actual IMPORTANT RIGGING TO BE DONE!! I refused to learn the Star Knot on general principles. It got in the way of completing a job in a timely and efficient manner. Why spend time fussing with a decorative and essentially useless knot when the traveler control lines still had to be set up? As I have aged out of my twenties, and thirties, and am making my way through (god help me) my forties, the Star Knot has gone from something I almost hated, to something I aspire to achieve (In much the same way, I now wish I had taken more time to listen to the stories of all those “time wasters”). There’s a lesson for me here I think, one that I am still trying to learn, but at least am able to see now.
So, while you may never be able to use a Star Knot to save your bacon when that through-hull hose slips free (Constrictor), or to send a furler aloft (Icicle Hitch), or pull crew out of the water (Running Bowline), there is no other knot you would want to use on that lanyard you might make for a loved one, for example. And if you look closely at the ship’s bell, which is the heart of many a vessel, you may find a Star Knot hanging on at the end of the pull, put there by a wise soul who knew what is important. When we realize that time, and care, and patience are more important than speed, and utility, and profit, then we have started to achieve something not unlike wisdom, and we are able to appreciate the Star Knot for what it is, the most important knot in the world. And I’m not there yet, but I hope I’m on my way.
For those of you not familiar with the Star Knot, Clifford Ashley described it as, “Perhaps the most distinguished of button knots, and certainly the most individual…” This is high praise coming from Ashley, who wrote the preeminent book on knotting. If you are not familiar with him, you can read a bit about him Here. For those of you who, like Peter, have a hankering to master this beautiful structure, I can recommend the ABK, or my video “Fancy Ropework Collection,”, or my book, “The Rigger’s Apprentice.” You can find how to get them by visiting our Online Store.
On very short notice, some fellow knotting knerds sent in pictures of some of their favorite Star Knot examples. You will find a classic 5-strand version at the top of this post, and several more below.
Next Week: Not Falling Far
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