Crystal Seas Kayaking

Starting Out

Getting to Know the Ropes

By Tamia Nelson

Give a girl enough rope and she can line a canoe down a rapids, rescue a partner marooned on a mid-stream rock, haul a food pack up where only flying squirrels can get at it, or make a simple tarp into a shelter that will withstand a gale of wind. But the rope comes first.

Rope was probably one of humanity's earliest tools. By the seventeenth century BC the Chinese had already begun mechanizing the process of turning plant fibers into cordage. Two hundred years ago, when much of the world's trade moved by sea and all ships were driven by the wind, nearly every seaport had a rope-walk: a long shed where rope-yarn was combed and spun and hawsers and cables were laid.

The days of hemp, manila, sisal, and coir are gone, of course, but rope's still important to canoeists, kayakers, and other boaters. Nowadays, however, it's likely to be made of nylon, polyester (Dacron), or polypropylene. (There's a fourth choice—Spectra, a proprietary olefin fiber developed for the running rigging of high-performance sailboats. It's also used in "professional" rescue throw-bags, but it's not cheap. Since throw-bags are often sacrificed, Spectra makes sense only if you can afford to toss money away.)

How do these differ? Put simply, nylon rope is strong and stretchy, while polyester is both less elastic and somewhat less strong. Polypropylene rope, though good enough for some applications, is the weakest of the three by far. It's also almost impossible to knot securely, and once it's seen a little use, broken fibers make it truly nasty stuff to handle. It floats, though, and for that reason polypro's often used in throw-bags. That's probably all paddlers will want it for.

Whatever it's made of, rope's not simple stuff. Take a look at this illustration:

It's All in the Twist

Laid rope is built up from strands twisted together. Each strand, in turn, is made from yarns, produced by twisting individual fibers into a unit. Most of the laid rope you'll find in hardware stores and yacht-chandlers is like that shown in the illustration: three-strand, with a right-hand (or "Z-twist") lay. It's relatively inexpensive, easy to splice, and perfectly adequate for most purposes.

The most common alternative, braided rope, is more complex, and—to my mind, at least—much harder to splice. It's also more expensive. What's to be gained by using it, then? All things being equal, braided rope is slightly less stretchy than laid rope. Though that isn't something most paddlers need concern themselves with, braided rope also has less tendency to tangle. This can be very important, particularly when making up throw-bags.

The bottom line? Use braided rope in throw-bags, and three-strand rope for everything else. Painters are probably best made of polyester—it does stretch less, after all—but I've always found that nylon works fine. In fact, a bit of stretch in a tow-line may sometimes be a good thing. Don't use any rope less than ¼ inch (6 mm) in diameter, though. Not only is smaller diameter line weaker, but it can cut your hands badly under load.

How much rope do you need? That depends. Seventy-five feet is about right for a rescue rope, but 15 feet is probably long enough for a kayak tow-line. I prefer 25-foot painters in my canoes, however, and I also keep one or two 50-foot coils handy for lining down through awkward places, or tracking my boat upstream. Back in the fur-trade days, when crews had to haul big canoes and York boats up broad western rivers, it wasn't unusual to see tracking lines as long as 150 feet in use. Just remember, though—you can't push with a rope. The longer your tracking line, the harder it is to keep your boat under control. If it gets away from you, you'll soon learn that trying to snub a runway canoe in a steep drop is a good way to get a wetting, or worse.

Speaking of hard chances, it's surprisingly easy to twist a loop of rope around a foot or arm. When tracking or lining, therefore, always keep a sharp knife handy, preferably one with a fixed blade and a blunt sheep's-foot point, well-protected in a metal-lined sheath.

It's important to look after yourself, obviously, but your rope needs care, too. Though polyester is less vulnerable than nylon, ultraviolet radiation attacks all synthetic fibers, so protect working ropes from the sun whenever possible. (A canvas bag makes a good container for a painter. The bag also keeps the painter from getting loose and making a dangerous tangle.) Dirt and grit can abrade—or even cut—a rope. Rinse dirty ropes in clean, cool water, drying them thoroughly afterward. And never stand on a rope!

Inspect all your ropes often, and retire any that show signs of damage. A little surface fuzz on the strands is OK, but that's all. In fact, it's not a bad idea to retire tracking and rescue lines after three seasons of use, even if they show no obvious wear of any sort. When the life of someone you care about or the security of all your worldly possessions depends on the integrity of a quarter-inch rope, it's better to be safe than sorry. 'Nuff said.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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