Sailing the Ship - ROPE

On a sailing ship in the mid 18th century, rope was the working heart of the ship and was used for all manner of work on board. It is estimated that including the rope in storage below decks there would have been in excess of 40 miles on board a Man-O-War such as Invincible. Rope on board any sailing ship can be divided into two distinct categories

RUNNING RIGGING - was the term used for all rope which ran through blocks etc and was not fixed. In the main, this would have been untreated, natural hemp, which did not last very long against all the elements.

STANDING RIGGING - on the other hand this was the term used for all static or fixed rope work which never moved or ran through blocks or eyelets etc. For example the rope used in the shrouds, dead eyes, seizing off blocks etc.. Because of this static fixing, standing rigging was made to last longer by coating/impregnating it with 'Stockholm tar'.

THE INGENIOUS BRITISH TAR British sailors generally grew their hair long. One reason for this was to enable them to 'plat' their hair down their backs. Before going into battle, it is said that some would impregnate this 'plat' with STOCKHOLM TAR thus providing considerable protection to the back of their necks. This practice earned them the name 'The British Tar'. (The only efficient way we can cut this tarred hemp rope by hand even now is with an axe).
  The reason the rope has survived for over 230 years on the seabed is due entirely to the tar impregnation. This demonstrates the effectiveness of the tar for strength and preservation. Rope usage included; - Rigging Gun Blocks Steering linkages Anchor cables Netting Hammocks etc.
To save the crew getting bored in times of little activity, a good Captain would offer a shilling to the man who could create the most decorative and inventive piece of rope work.
Due to the nature of the running rigging, it wore out fairly quickly and was of no further use on board ship. This was known as JUNK RIGGING. The word junk is an example of the change in meaning known as generalization, and very aptly too, since the amount of junk in the world seems to be generalizing and proliferating rapidly. The Middle English word jonk, ancestor of junk, originally had a very specific meaning restricted to nautical terminology. First recorded in 1353, the word meant “an old cable or rope". On a sailing ship it made little sense to throw away useful material since considerable time might pass before one could get new supplies. Old cable was used in a variety of ways, for example, to make fenders, that is, material hung over the side of the ship to protect it from scraping other ships or wharves. Junk came to refer to this old cable as well. The big leap in meaning taken by the word seems to have occurred when junk was applied to discarded but useful material in general. This extension may also have taken place in a nautical context, for the earliest, more generalized use of junk is found in the compound junk shop, referring to a store where old materials from ships were sold. Junk has gone on to mean useless waste as well. On board ship, junk was generally sold by one of the bosun's mates to a land person who dealt in second hand goods. This second hand merchant became known as a 'JUNK MAN'.

This size rope was probably used for shrouds or possibly kedge anchor cable (shown in image right) It is approx. 75 mm (3") dia. The section on the right is seen resting against one of the many gunpowder barrels recovered from the wreck. This particular piece is now owned by author Julian Stockwin. He finds that handling the rope is inspiration for his superb series of novels on the life of Kydd.

Julian's "fathom" of rope is mounted on a superb ash backboard manufactured by the very fine cabinet maker, John Burchett. The rope was carefully cleaned and then revitalsed with genuine imported Stockholm tar to give it the wonderfully atmospheric aroma, found only when aboard an eighteenth century, fully rigged Man - o - War.

I recently made up a nice Red Cherry mount for a short section of rope recovered from Invinicble. I coated the rope with stockholm tar and now it creates that wonderful smell you get when you visit the rope locker on Victory in Portsmouth Dockyard.