Imagine being underway. Not just out cruising, but going without seeing land for a few weeks, and knowing you probably won't be seeing it again for a few more.
The ship's maintenance is done. All the cleaning is done, and you've reached the point where one would go insane having to watch the same movie for the 11th time. What’s a sailor to do in this situation?
Once upon a time, the answer would be to turn to fancywork.
Often called boat jewelry, fancywork, is a centuries-old form of decorative knot tying, begun as a way for sailors to simply pass their downtime while underway. The resulting ornamental knots would mostly be used to the decorate the ship, though many often became gifts for significant others, or were sold as goods when ships reached port.
“Adding fancywork gives ships more personality and gives the crew more pride and [a feeling of] ownership,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Warren Wilson, executive petty officer of Coast Guard Cutter Chock.
Though seemingly ornamental, fancywork serves many practical functions aboard. For example, when attached to handrails or ladders, the knots and natural ridges in the ropes act as a grip, which helps prevent slipping and makes the many wet surfaces safer for foot traffic. In a similar method, fancywork was often applied to glass and metal jugs and cups to help alleviate their constant clanking sounds.
Wilson learned most of his knot tying and fancywork skills from his old, “salty” chief who had prior service in the Navy.
“I started tying fancywork when I joined the Coast Guard almost 14 years ago,” Wilson said. “The continuous turn of the half hitch knot was the easiest. I would tie that on everything -- my rack, knife handle, the small boat and anything else I could get my hands on.”
For Petty Officer 3rd Class Elizabeth Murray, a boatswains mate at Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Baltimore, fancywork is simply an extension of her creativity.
“Most of my fancywork has a practical use,” Murray said. “I put decorative wraps and zipper toggles on the weather curtains on the 26-foot trailerable aids to navigation boat.”
Murray said she’s self-taught and started learning fancywork in the second grade when she made friendship bracelets and macramé jewelry for fun. She said she enjoyed wearing the jewelry she made.
Perhaps the largest nod to nautical practices of the past, Wilson reminisces, it was not a book that keeps the old practice alive, but merely his old Chiefs want to share his seafairing knowledge that rubbed off on him. In a world of technology and automated everything, it’s easy to forget the skill and artistry that goes into simply working with your hands to pass the time.
“You can’t always order something premade,” Murray said. “You could be hundreds of miles from shore and need a line replaced on the spot to keep operations going, and all you have is a spool of line. It’s important to know how to do this kind of thing.”