Tying One On with Tony

Knots for Catboat Sailors

Brion Toss was a good friend of mine. Sadly, he passed away this past June 2020 in Port Townsend, Washington. I was fortunate to have had a short but very sweet visit with him at his shop in the Fall of 2019, and he informed me of his health situation.

Brion took me on as an apprentice in the early 1980s in Brooklin, Maine. He taught me so much. I thought I knew a lot, having been a rigger at Spencer’s Boat Yard in West Palm Beach for three years, but I soon learned how little I knew after working with Brion. He taught me wire splicing; we spliced all the rigging for a boat I was building at that time. My splices were aloft, Brion’s splices were at deck level. We laughed, as my work looked pretty rough compared to his. He taught me many more knots that I needed help with and splicing skills that needed work. We had a lot of laughs and good times; his friendship meant a lot to me as my career progressed.

Our first big job together was to splice, if my memory serves me well, a 1 1/8″ cable needed to launch a new coastal Schooner Heritage, which was preparing for its launch day in Rockport, Maine. We had a tight deadline to get the job done. As the launch ceremony approached, we had to work between tides to add the cable needed to get her safely down and into deep water. We worked into the night, my fingertips bleeding and freezing as we wrapped the heavy strands of 7×7 wire in and out of each lay. It was early April and cold.

This was my first launching of a new boat that I had some direct involvement with. I was experiencing a feeling that I am familiar with now — that unknowing pit in your stomach hoping that everything is going to go OK. In this case, it was figuring out if the wire length was going to be right and if the splice would work its way through the blocks in order to float the boat. Later in my career, it was the nervous feeling at launch day: Is she going to float on her lines? There is nothing quite like launch day when you are involved in the construction of the boat.

Brion and I watched as she slid down the ways on her cradle. Brion, as always, was confident it would be just fine. And it was. Heritage slid down the ways with charm as thousands of people cheered and news stations filmed. We enjoyed the early spring celebration as the new Schooner joined the Maine Windjammer fleet.

Our new video where I talk about and show the knots that I think are important to know as a sailor of a catboat. There are over 3900 knots you can tie in The Ashley Book of Knots — I think Brion could tie most of them. Here are eight that are very important to know and master during these winter months.

  • Reefing Knot — for your sail’s reef points including the tack and foot.
  • Bowline — for peak halyard at the end of the gaff and topping lift at the end of the boom.
  • Half Hitch for locking your clove hitch, all-around good knot to have in your tool bag. 
  • Clove Hitch — for your tiller tamers, or around a piling when tying up to a dock.
  • Slip Knot — for your boat covers or any tie-down needs that are more for convenience.
  • Cleat — for mainsheet, halyards and docking.
  • Securing a Coil — for mainsheet and halyards.
  • Stopper knot — for end of mainsheet and halyards.

Being able to tie some kind of knot with one hand if an emergency comes up, a one-handed bowline is great, fun to master.

The video goes over these knots and their importance on the catboat. It is important to know these for your safety and your crew’s safety. If my explanation does not work for you (in the video), there are plenty of YouTube videos that do a great job.

Let’s not lose the art of tying a proper knot to clips, snaps and modern conveniences as our society surges into automated living and AI technology. Take the time and learn your knots — your sailing confidence will be better for it.

“I have tried always to keep in mind the values of resourcefulness, simplicity, and enduring strength, they seem to have something to do with happiness. So I trust that what follows will be not only a collection of procedures, but an enjoyable way of proceeding.” Brion Toss, Brooklin, Maine 1984. Taken from the last paragraph of his preface in the 1st edition of The Complete Rigger’s Apprentice:

All of us who knew Brion or his work will miss his great wit, skill and, most of all, his friendship.

Sail on-