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On Being "Sharp" At Sea

Without the invention of rope (Lines) the “age of ships” would never have left port. Without a knife, the functionality of a vessels line is compromised. Without knives, fish would never be filleted or steaked and oysters and clams would be still being opened by the rock smashing technique and we’d all be spitting shell shards. Without a cutlass, a pirate would look less threatening than a dock “Dandy” strolling the waterfront with his feather hat and long, thin, useless rapier. Without a sharp hatchet, many a whaleboat would have been dragged to the ocean depths by an uncontrollable harpooned leviathan. We rarely consider how sharp objects of utility and defense are entwined in the history, lore and mystery of the sea. We will examine some important razor sharp tools that built the great age of trade and war under sail.
 
THE CUTLASS - A cutlass is often mistaken for a sword but it is an entirely different weapon developed for use on the ships of Europe during the age of North and South American exploration and colonization. A sword traditionally has a long, thinner blade, sharpened on both edges. Crews found swords restricting and unwieldy when fighting for their lives on decks littered with lines, buckets, cannons, fallen sails, splinted masts and fallen comrades. Sea adventurers needed a weapon that was short and agile to fight in these confined spaces yet substantial enough to cut through anything. One broad sharp blade, curved or straight, with a thick handle and heavy pummel on the end that could stab, slash, or spl
it open an adversary’s head would do the job. There are stories told that pirates in the new world adapted a cattle-butchering blade used on islands of the Caribbean to fashion the cutlass.  This is a myth. What became the favorite pirate weapon was actually designed by Italian Mediterranean merchants in the late middle ages when city-states, like Venice and Genoa, controlled the seas.  They called it a “Coltelaccio” (You can hear the derivative “Cutlass” when you sound out the word.) There is some evidence that it is partially adapted from similar short swords used by the Ottomans at that time.  
 
THE GULLY KNIFE - What to do when you drop your cutlass when wildly swinging on a rope to board another ship?  You grab for your “GULLY KNIFE” from the leather sheath at your side! It’s a deadly sharp, thick weapon, often made by seamen themselves. It’s named after the French word “Goulet” meaning ‘’Throat”, the first targets of your adversary to go for-or maybe his thigh!  Cut a major artery and he bleeds out. He’s done.
The gully knife was a multipurpose tool. During a storm, sailors climbed ratlines to cut away torn sails awash in the sea. Heavy sails could drag a ship over with their weight. Sailors had to cut fallen lines on decks to prevent crewmen from getting entangled and dragged over board during a storm or battle.
 
POCKET KNIVES - Pocket knives were popular in the age of sail and continue so today. They began as a single blade held in a wooden handle-which was often hand carved. Unlike today’s models where the blade locks in place, these could easily fold onto a sailor’s hand if care wasn’t taken. They were only used in a downward cutting or carving thrust. It could be used in an emergency as a backup weapon but was mostly for personal use such as cutting lines, carving and even as an eating utensil. Handles were self-made and carved out of wood, whalebone or ivory and beautifully carved and personalized by the sailor, pirate or whaler.

MARLIN SPIKES - From the age of sail to today, marlin spikes are essential when working with lines and ropes. Its name is derived from the sword like spike on the front of a marlins head. Larger spikes are used to take the pressure off fastening lines and used as a lever when tension on lines is required to fasten ropes. Larger marlin spikes were carried by sailors in their belts for ready use. They also were a considerable, last resort weapon that could be deadly. You can see these large spikes still in use today on larger traditional sailing vessels such as the Clearwater on the Hudson, Christine in Oyster Bay and the Priscilla in Sayville.
In addition to the large spike, there are smaller folding pocket types, many with a knife blade included for whipping the ends of boats lines and creating decorative rope designs like the monkey fist and the Celtic knot.
 
THE DIRK is a long knife that is three or four sided with a sharp tip. Often the sides of the blades are not sharpened. The object of its design is ultimate damage. As the dirk blade enters a body, the triangle blade opens up a huge wound that cannot be repaired. It is perfectly balanced and can be thrown with deadly accuracy. Its origin is the Celtic Highlands of Ireland and Scotland and was often carried in a non-obvious place amongst a sailor or pirates clothing. Tucking it inside the top of a boot was a favorite place of concealment. In “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson, young Jim Hawkins is wounded when the pirate, Israel Hands, pursues Jim up the mast and wounds Jim with a swiftly thrown dirk. Jim survived with just a nick but Israel Hands was blown to Davy Jones’ locker by Jim’s steadily aimed flintlock pistol.
 
AXES AND HATCHETS - With the heavy lines, chains, shrouds, spars and surrounding wood on a vessel, axes and hatches were one of the ages of sails most important tools and weapons.
Many a ‘Tar” (I8-19th century term for a sailor) and pirate would carry a hatchet in his arsenal. They were very adept at throwing them with deadly accuracy and could fend off cutlass thrusts with its head and return a deadly blow to the attacker with the hatchets sharp or blunt side. During the whaling era, every whale boat carried hatchets at ready in the event that an uncontrollable leviathan turned on a whaleboat, sounded to the point of dragging the boat under, or took it on too long of a “Nantucket Sleigh Ride”. The harpooner or an oarsman would reach for the hatchet and quickly sever the line to the harpoon attached to the whale.
Larger heavier axes were always at ready on ships to cut thick hawser lines and even chain in emergency situations. Many old anchors lie on the seabed because a ship, calmly at anchor, suddenly had to “Cut and run” when a menacing ship appeared on the far horizon.
 
SAILORS SEWING KIT - The last “sharp” instrument we will review was a necessity carried by every sailing tar, pirate, and merchant seaman. It’s simple, large, sharp and rarely used in a lethal manner. It’s a sewing needle used with thick-waxed whipping twine all kept in a canvas or leather “Kit”. The needle was used in conjunction with a leather “Sailors Palm” which protected a sailors hand when pushing the thick needle and twine through heavy canvas sails needing repair while attached to masts. The waxed twine was also used to whip the ends of cut ropes so they could not unravel or fray thereby rendering them useless. There are absolutely non-historical accounts of any pirate, armed with his sharp cutlass, losing a duel to some foolish sailor trying to engage him with his sewing needle. (Probably because that sailor “Never lived to tell the tale!”)
 
Article and Illustrations by Mark C. Nuccio
All rights reserved.
You can contact Mark –mark@ designedge.net.

 

 

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