“For today’s sailing,” McNurlan begins, “there’s about five or six basic knots that they use on a sailboat or even on a power boat. For example, one of the things sailors do for a temporary eye is tie a bowline.” And as he speaks, he demonstrates. “So you take the bitter end and you tie it over the top. This is the bitter end down here. This is the working end. And you put a little loop in here. And you can use an old sailor analogy. The rabbit comes out of the hole, around the tree, and back into the hole.” He makes three motions with the rope as he says this, and in about three seconds, he’s made a bowline (pronounced BO-lin). “It doesn’t slip, and you can change its size.”
McNurlan has taken a length of rope and made it into something else. It looks like sleight of hand. Like an illusion. It looks like magic.
“They say, on a sailing ship, you have to be able to do it in the dark upside down.”
And then, just as quickly as he tied the bowline, he unties it.
“That’s the thing about knots is you have to be able to untie them,” he says. “So you see this little piece going over the top here, you just roll that over, and it opens the whole thing up and loosens it. So no matter how tight it gets, you can keep working it loose and untie the knot.
“This is an overhand knot,” he says, starting to tie again. “This is the one that people usually throw into a line when they want to put a knot in the end of it.” He ties the knot in a flash. “Then you just take an extra twist in it, and come out, and it becomes a figure-eight knot.” Another flash, another knot. “And then, even when this one gets real tight, you’ve still got that little loop that you can roll back and be able to untie it.” Another flash, and the knot’s untied.
“There’s also the cleat hitch,” McNurlan says, tying another knot.
“Besides your other knots, you’ve got hitches and bends,” he says. “So if you’re tying the rope to some other object, then it’s called a hitch. Like you’re hitching up your horse. And bends are tying two ropes together.”
It’s impossible not to notice McNurlan’s hands. Thick, short fingers, abundant calluses, a map of wrinkles, big knuckles — so much character in those hands.
“This is a reef knot, which laymen call a square knot,” McNurlan begins another demonstration, holding his strand of rope between his hands. “A reef knot is, when the winds get too strong, you reef your sail. You reduce your sail area by lowering the sail down and tying off a certain lower section of it, and you reset it so you can handle a higher wind without overpowering the boat. So they have lines that come out of the sail that you tie around the gathered material. And that’s called reefing. You tie reef knots in the reef lines. And it’s right over left, left over right, and you have the reef knot.”
Although the rest of us might think of knot tying as a lost art, McNurlan says that the real lost art is decorative knot tying. “Sailors still use all these practical knots every day,” McNurlan says. “But very few people remember how to tie the decorative knots anymore.”
McNurlan shows off an elaborate piece of weaving that he’s done. “One of the more difficult knots to tie is a star knot,” he says, holding his own star knot in his hand. “It’s just the way it’s weaved. It comes back and turns and goes about maybe ten different directions at once. So once you get it all tied, then you have to work all the way through. A lot of the time, with knots, especially the decorative ones, you tie it loose, and then once you get it to where the knot’s tied, then you have to go back through and tighten it up and cinch it down.”
A finished Turk’s head looks like a bunch of Princess Leia hairdos clustered in a ball.
“Knots are being developed all the time,” McNurlan says, although he’s never developed a knot of his own. “People are still looking for ways to deal with rope. And the one fascinating one that’s just come about recently is called an icicle knot. Now, an icicle tapers to a point down at the end, and this guy figured out a way to tie a rope around a tapered object that will not slide to the point. Which is a very tricky thing to do. And I had someone show it to me, but I haven’t learned how to do it.”
McNurlan estimates that he can tie 15 or 20 different knots off the top of his head. Otherwise, he says he could use diagrams and be able to tie just about any knot there is.
“So, like I say, sailors couldn’t read and they couldn’t write,” McNurlan says, smiling. “But when it came to rope, they really knew their business.”
Does Anyone Write by Hand Anymore?
“When you’re in there trying to make that perfect e, you can’t be worrying about Iraq or whether the bills are going to get paid,” Susan Hull says. She speaks quietly and slowly and has a slow quietness about her. “If you want that e to be correct, you’ve got to be sure that that stroke is correct. And you’ve got to be sure that when you get that gathering together — when you get those strokes meeting — if they don’t meet perfectly, then it’s not pretty. It’s not calligraphy, by definition. And even if your strokes always meet, if the lines wiggle and waggle along the way, then it’s not good. It’s not calligraphy.”
Hull, who is the proprietor of Ladybug Art Calligraphy Studio in Kensington, defines calligraphy as the art of beautiful handwriting.