The Line on Deck Ropes

By Tom Neale, 9/22/2005


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BoatUS has a great hurricane site. Since I’m living on a boat, I usually check it out several times a day whenever I’m in areas where I can get wireless access to the internet. The spaghetti models on the site remind me of my deck ropes. They’re often all over the place and they’re projections of impending disaster.

When I pull away from the dock it’s like there’s a pile of snakes all over the boat. The only good thing about them is that they’re not moving—except sometimes. Farley Mowat wrote a great book about hurricanes. He named it “The Serpent’s Coil.” I would have thought that he must have seen my boat except for the fact that he wrote the book before the boat was built. I know that to be a proper yachtsman I should call them “lines” rather than ropes. But I usually don’t. I know I should “neatly coil the lines and stow them away” every time I leave the dock. I should do a lot of “neatly” things, but it never seems to happen that way. First, I can’t coil and stow my ropes anyway until I’m out in open water. Undocking “Chez Nous” is like untying an elephant in a crowded circus. You never know exactly what she’s going to do. Not only do you want to keep those ropes handy in case she decides she doesn’t want to do what you want her to do, you don’t have time to put them away prematurely because you’re so busy doing all you can to make sure she lumbers on in the right direction. When we’re finally safely out in open water and away from the areas where we can inflict the most damage, I’m usually so happy that I really don’t want to mess with ropes right then. It’s easier to just let them lay where they fell.

When we’re going to be out for several weeks at a time and on the hook (our normal mode) I’m forced to do the right thing because I’ve got to find the anchor lines and the windlass switch on the deck underneath that pile of bow ropes, and the dinghy launching switch on the stern underneath that pile of stern ropes. The problem becomes severe when we head to another dock that evening. It’s so easy to say, “no need to put that mess away, I’ll just have to get’em all out again later.” Then when we get to the other dock, of course, all the poles and cleats are in the wrong place. The government in all its wisdom hasn’t yet gotten around to making Uniform Dock Piling and Cleat Placement Regulations. When they do, which I’m sure won’t be long in coming, all this will get much easier. So now I’m suddenly forced to sort out the mess and make things work in this unfamiliar and hostile environment. (It doesn’t become hostile until a few minutes after I get there and I’ve been trying to sort out lines at the same time I’m trying to not hit other boats.)

Tom's Tips About Deck Ropes (Lines)

1. When you plan to return soon to the same dock, it helps to organize your lines so that, even though you use them in the interim at another dock, you can quickly tell which line you use in which location at your regular slip.
2. One way of organizing is to number them. One wrap of white electrical tape, taped to itself (it won’t stay stuck on the rope) with a number made by a water proof marker such as the Sharpie ™ permanent marker is one way to do this. For example, the number 1 could be assigned to the starboard bow line and so on all the way around.

Click Here for More Tips

You haven’t lived until you’ve thrown a line to a helpful person standing smiling on the dock and it turns out you’ve thrown the wrong end which is also the end drooped over the rail behind you and which therefore, when it hits the helpful person on the face (as usual) it also brings with it your boat hook which you’d left also leaning against the railing and your glasses which it yanked off your head as it gracefully snaked past.

And you haven’t lived until the helpful but no longer smiling person cleats off the line you’ve just thrown and your boat keeps moving because you haven’t been at the wheel for awhile (because just before you came into the slip you remembered you hadn’t done anything about that mess of lines and you’d damn well better) and you reach down to cleat off your end of the line to stop the boat’s momentum and you find out you don’t need to cleat it off because it’s already wrapped around your ankle and you couldn’t cleat it off anyway because you don’t have a clue where your end of the line is and suddenly it doesn’t matter as you crash down on the deck just before you hit the dock.

And you haven’t lived until you rush back to try to get a stern line around the piling at the end of the slip and you find it’s wrapped around your Follow Me TV and you quickly disentangle it to find that it was the wrong line anyway because that was the line that you’d been using to tow your dinghy the week before and you’d never untied it from your dinghy which is now very rapidly departing from its berth aboard ship because you just lassoed the piling with the other end of that dinghy line.

There are some saving graces about having a mess of lines about the deck. The first that comes to mind is that they do a really great job of collecting dirt. When you pull in the anchor and that mud runs back aft down the deck, the rope makes a nice little dam that stops it and covers it up. Or when all the bird mess on the deck starts drifting aft as you take on spray, a good mess of ropes will stop it and collect it, hiding it neatly beneath the coils. Sometimes the coils look so nice to the birds that they actually go right there, missing the deck altogether. But the point is that with enough loose coils of rope around the deck, you don’t have to worry about cleaning up all that mud and bird stuff—it just kind of disappears from view and thought. Until you throw that coil to the helpful person on the dock and suddenly realize what’s coming with it and what the helpful person is likely to be saying to you very shortly.

Another that comes to mind is that a loose fluffy coil of rope on the deck makes a great cushion when you fall because you just tripped on another one. Of course this requires that you have multiple loose coils of rope on the deck, but this is never a problem on Chez Nous.

Another that comes to mind is that if you leave the coils there long enough, they’ll grow grass and herbs and whatever else the birds in your neighborhood have been eating. You may wonder what’s so good about this, but clearly you haven’t ever had friends’ or daughters’ pets aboard, said pets being unaccustomed to what to do (and where to do it) on boats. There’s nothing like seeing that look of pleasure on the face of a good dog when he’s found a spot that he knows is appropriate. Too bad the guy on the dock doesn’t have the same look when you forget about all this and throw him that line.

So I’ve decided to stop all this foolishness (well, Mel decided it for me) and from now on I’m going to do what the books say and “neatly coil” my dock lines every time I leave dock. That way I’ll be able to look more like the proper yachtsman as I come into dock, calmly walking about on deck with my neatly coiled lines. And also, I’m never going to say “ropes” again. It’s so much nicer to look and sound like you know what you’re doing when you don’t.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale