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Diary Of A Sailmaker’s Apprentice

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June 14

One way to protect a line or wire from chafe and exposure is to wrap it in seine twine. The task is called “serving.” Seine twine is thin, plastic line coated in pine tar, which turns the white twine black. In the past, sailors used tarred marline, line made from hemp fibers. Some traditional ships still use the natural stuff. The key to serving a line well is to wrap the seine twine tightly around it, with little or no space between coils.

As shown in the photo above, I served a portion of a white line and then wrapped that line around a bronze thimble. I then stitched the bitter end of the white line back onto itself to complete the loop and seize everything in place. The exposed white line is tugged back inside the hem at one edge of the sail so only the thimble sticks out from the fabric. That thimble is at the tack corner of the sail and will help a sailor attach the sail to the rigging.

The line receiving service should be under tension as one winds the seine twine around and around. On the handwork bench, I stretched the white line between my knees, holding one end down with my foot and attaching the other to a hook bolted to the bench. At the opposite corner of the sail (the head), however, we need to use the shop’s winch to apply tension.

This task might not seem all that complicated or glamorous. However, I was excited to complete it. On tall ships, most of the service you will find is on the hundreds of feet of thick, steel cables of wire rigging. The wire is “parceled” before it is served, meaning a sailor wraps strips of tarred canvas around the wires. Then he or she uses tarred marline for the service. In the end, everything receives a coat of yet more pine tar. The process is designed to keep the wire dry and salt-free so rust will not weaken the cables. So the job, in my experience, was for tenured sailors and shipwrights, never for me.

Yes, it’s true I served about 12 inches total of a line that has nothing to do with say, securing a 160-foot-tall mast. But, I didn’t have to stand by and watch someone else do it. I also now know the tricky business of hiding the tails of seine twine at either end of the service (trade secret, of course). My co-workers approved of the results of my work, work that sailmakers have performed for centuries before me in this very town. Neat.

 

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Photo by Halie Duke

August 31

I was glad I wore my nice underwear on a rare hot day last month when Poseidon called the ladies of the loft to the sea. In a bygone era, before the waterfront was the tourist destination it is today, my boss began a tradition of skinny dipping with her colleagues. A plaque at the sand’s edge now commemorates that ritual, although the words “used to” make me chuckle, since it seems like a nice way of saying: “Please don’t get naked downtown anymore. There are children.”

The sailmaking sirens did not let a lack of swimwear get in the way of living the legacy of the midday icy dip, but we did keep our skivvies on. The dunk was the first one I had braved in the clear, glacial waters of the bay. But, I rose to the surface warmed by the sense that I was now a true part of our legendary sail loft.

This week marks my six month anniversary as a sailmaker’s apprentice. The sails I am entrusted to build grow in square footage, but the amount of knowledge to collect and skills to perfect also seems to increase daily. Luckily, when feelings of being overwhelmed begin to rise up like a wave, one of my co-workers is there to streak by and plunge in before it crests, breaking it with a laugh, and maybe a bobbing pair of boobies—figuratively, of course. After all, we’re not an indecent bunch.

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