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Diary of a Sailmaker’s Apprentice


March 25

Pirates of Pendants

Yes, tall ship friends, I used the “P” word in the title of this post. But really, most of the so-called pirates that like to tour our decks are mild hazards. I consider it a courtesy, even, that they dress flamboyantly enough to warn us to steer clear of them, especially if we would rather avoid an invitation to shiver a stranger’s timbers. And that brings me to my caption for the photo above: Flashy colors warn sailmakers away from something that might trip them up.

The tripping hazard is a tiny awl, which is a steel spike with a handle. In that photo, I put the tip of the awl through a ring at the head pendant and hammered it into the floor to hold that part of the sail in place. The photo below shows the pendant (white webbing) and the ring. There is another pendant at the other end of that edge of the sail, at the tack. I hammered an awl through the tack pendant ring, too. The awls help to hold mild tension along that sail edge, to keep it flat and in place while I work on installing a foam luff.

My fellow sailmakers strive to make me more independent every day. I enjoy the challenge. Still, there are times when I feel as awkward as if I were the one in pirate garb. In those moments, however, you won’t find me saying “yar.” No, no, my shipmates taught me to use better words than that.

1422020219250March 30

A hot knife is one of the most important tools a modern sailmaker uses. The blade is a sharpened element that heats up with electricity when you squeeze the trigger. The blade cauterizes as it cuts. Cauterization is important because sail fabric, sail thread, and webbing are all made of plastic. We melt raw edges to prevent fraying.

A few friends expressed surprise when I mentioned our materials are synthetic. After all, sailors still refer to sails as “canvas” though most sails, even those on historic tall ships, are no longer made of natural fiber. Modern materials offer many benefits over canvas. However, there is a detriment to working with the man-made materials. That’s where the monkey, and everything he’s attached to, come in.

Highly toxic fumes emit from burning plastic. Also, the blades of hot knives remain molten for a short time after use. So, the good people of the loft designed and built a system that would make the knives safer. The monkey is lashed to a cluster of weights, in this case a bunch of old hanks. Hanks are metal clips that attach the edge of a sail to a boat’s rigging. The hanks are tied to a line that runs though blocks fixed on the ceiling and down to a hot knife. The counter weight allows a sailmaker to pull down the knife to cut and then push it high above her head to cool off, out of the way. Meanwhile, a vacuum hose turns on automatically the moment she pulls the knife’s trigger to slurp up any fumes.

One day this week, one of my fellow sailmakers and I talked about how much we appreciated the fume-sucking system and traded stories about past jobs where no machines whisked the poisons away. There was a sweltering day in Key West, for example, where I suddenly vomited as I slopped bottom paint onto a hull, surrounded by chain-smokers. There’s perhaps slightly more glory in such a job where it would be impractical to wear a skirt and no shoes, as we do in the loft, but I like it here.

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