Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How to: Coil a line

There may be as many ways of coiling up a line for storage as there are sailors on the planet.

But the real pros at this were the old-time whalers - the ones who went out in the small boats with little more than a harpoon and a lot of line.  When they speared a whale and the beast took off, it was critical, no, crucial, that the coil of line in the front of the boat payed out cleanly - their lives depended on it.  For if it didn't, if the harpoon line suddenly turned into a giant Gordian knot as it payed out, the whalers in the boat were doomed.

So how did they store the line in the bow of their boats?  No, not as a coil.  For when a line is coiled into a stack of circular turns, it is necessary to put one twist in the line for each turn to make it lay flat.  When the line is then removed from the coil, those twists pile up and eventually collect into a huge mess of a knot.

Instead, the whalers flaked the line into the bows of the whale boats.  Flaking a line "coils" it without adding twists.  Here's how to do it in hand:

If one end of the line is fixed, start near that end.  Grasp the line in one hand and then with the other hand reach out a distance and grasp the line again.  The distance apart determines the size of the eventual flaked coil.  (If the distance is the full arm-spread of an adult male, it will be approximately 6 feet - the origin of the fathom, as useful now as it was then for quickly measuring the length of a line.)

Bring your hands together and transfer the line to the hand near the fixed end.  But here's the trick:  Do NOT add that twist which would be required to form a circle of the line.  Instead, resist that idea.  Done properly, instead of a circle, you'll have a figure 8 in your hand.

Repeat until you are near the end.  Since we are not going to attach the bitter end to a harpoon, we'll use it instead to secure the flaked coil so that it doesn't spill all over the place.

Still holding the coil in your left hand, pass a turn or two around it above the midpoint.

Next, make a loop on the free end and pass it thru the accumulated turns you are holding in your left hand.

Finally, pass the bitter end thru that loop and snug it up.

This secures the coil and keeps it from getting tangled, and it provides a nice tail to clove hitch to a nearby rail to store the line.

As an alternative, if you don't need the tail for hanging the line, you may pass that loop thru the accumulated turns in your hand, and then simply pull it down over the collection of turns, locking everything in place, like what was done with this length of shiny new line destined to become replacement docklines on Eolian.

Finally as another alternative which is particularly useful if you are coiling a line which will be hung from a cleat but which must be ready to release, skip making the turns around the coil and use up all the line in making figure 8's.  Now pass a loop from the standing end thru the coils in your left hand, give it a twist or two and then hang that loop from the upper horn of the cleat.

What all of these methods have in common is the use of figure 8 flaking instead of coiling the line in circles. (There is a way to coil a line into circles with every other turn going in the opposite direction so the twists cancel out, but that's a story for another time.) 

Figure 8's are your friend.



Simeon said...

A very nice description. The only thing I can add is that that last loop that is passed through and over the figure-eight coils is very handy. By simply lifting up on it and over, the whole coil can quickly and easily be released to stream free.


Robert Salnick said...

Absolutely right Simeon! And it will stream free because it isn't twisted (ok, ok, I know I am belaboring...)


Unknown said...

Bob. Great description. That is exactly the way I coil lines. I know that others will argue, but for me, it has worked better than introducing twist to get the loop to lay flat. Figure 8s is where it is at for me.

Tara said...

Thanks for this post. My rope handling skills need some practice. I will further share on Twitter for you.

Robert Salnick said...


8 > 0 !


Robert Salnick said...

Tara -



My Writes said...

58Thanks for the validation. I've always felt lazy when I didn't "correct" my figure 8's, now I know I was just being seaworthy.

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