“When I arrived at a proper age I went to sea and served my apprenticeship in knots aboard the whaling bark Sunbeam. My chief instructor and the most quoted man in this volume was Captain Charles W. Smith, then acting mate. Under Captains Smith's tutorship I progressed rapidly in knots and marlinspike seamanship to a point where even my teacher admitted that if I persevered and maintained my health I might someday hope to grasp the rudiments of the art.” Ashley Book of Knots
Almost two decades ago, when sailing off into the sunset was still a distant dream for us, I read the book The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. Something that was quite intriguing to me was that each chapter began with a quote from Clifford Ashley's The Ashley Book Of Knots. Usually the quote was a couple of sentences that described a particular type of knot, like a bend or hitch, and perhaps a little about its history or its use. The quotes were interesting and I think they were meant to be allegories to the story as it was unfolding.
I had never heard of The Ashley Book of Knots. I found a copy at a bookstore, browsed through it and was quickly hooked. It is a compendium of over 3000 knots and 7000 illustrations, but what makes it much more than just a huge collection of knots is Ashley's narratives about the history and uses of all those knots and the life of the sailor. Marcie bought a copy for my birthday 18 years ago. It is now battered and weathered from hard use and its exposure to life aboard Nine of Cups for all those years. Not unlike the crew (or this half of it, anyway), I suppose.
When we visited the historic whaling town of New Bedford and were wandering through the whaling museum there, we saw a number of nautical paintings by Clifford W. Ashley. Until then, I didn't know Ashley was remembered for anything other than his well known book. What I discovered was this native son of New Bedford is just as well known for his hundreds of paintings and sketches.
He also wrote and illustrated two other books that described whaling and the life aboard a whaler. While I am in no way a proponent of the mass slaughter of whales that began in the mid 1800's, I do have an admiration for the hardships and dangers the typical whaler endured. Ashley probably did as much as anyone to preserve and record this heritage, and he did so in a manner that was as interesting as it was beautiful.
I also have an appreciation for the patience and craftsmanship of the sailors' arts over the centuries, especially the practical knots as well as decorative knots and rope work. I remain optimistic that if I study hard, persevere and maintain my health, even I might someday hope to grasp the rudiments of the art.