Sailing Knives and Rigging Knives

I was thinking today that a lot of modern fishermen probably don’t even know what a rigging knife or a marlin spike is. If you’ve ever spent half an hour trying to get a knotted rope unraveled, you’ve had the need for one even if you didn’t realize there was a tool for that. If you take up sailing, whether it’s crewing on a yacht or sailing your fishing canoe or kayak, you’ll have the need for a rigging knife. If you don’t have one, you’ll probably resort to teeth and fingernails, which aren’t so good.

Rigging knives were built to cut rope. The older styles have hawkbill blades or sheepsfoot blades, with plain cutting edges. Newer models tend towards serrated blades which supposedly take less maintenance and cut better. Personally I think that’s crap, because I know a rope under even moderate tension pretty much magically dissolves at the touch of a truly sharp knife. You don’t need to saw with a knife you’ve honed to perfection — it kind of breathes on the rope and the rope separates. If you want to go with the modern method that’s fine, but you do need something that works. My own preference for the serrated edge is to gradually convert it to a plain edge by sharpening. By the time I’ve honed the teeth back to the blade it’s a better knife than it started out to be. But that’s me — send it back to the factory if that seems like better common sense.

Marlin spikes are the second part of the rigging knife. Actually, older kits included a fixed blade knife and a stiff metal awl or sail needle — folding rigging knives combine the two. I’ve worked with both and prefer the folding type for unraveling knots because the needle is easier on the hands if a handle is involved. Sailing needles by themselves tend to separate fingertips from fingernails fairly quickly. If you actually might need to mend sails you’ll need the eyed needle — a marlin spike does not substitute for that. At least, not well.

The marlin spike is nothing more than a stiff awl with a tapered point. When you press that sharp point into the convolutions of a knot — so tight that fingers can’t budge it — the spike works the loops of the knot loose without damaging the rope. It’s simple. It works. Most people don’t have one. If you’re a sailor it’s one of the first things you ought to get — even if you don’t use it daily it’s a powerful emergency situation solver.

Of the several brands available on Amazon, I’d rate Ibberson at the top. Ibberson’s knives are simple in construction but well built. There’s not much to go wrong in these basic folding knives, with marlin spikes as secondary blades. Myerchin comes in second. Myerchin still makes a good fixed blade with a sail needle as a backup, and that’s the best Myerchin combination. Myerchin’s folders have had some problems with fragile spring levers. A good Myerchin doesn’t have that issue, but until the company works the problem out, the knives are a minor gamble. Backed by a good guarantee, the rosewood and steel Myerchin folding knife is a classic style and a practical choice, but be ready to argue with the company if it goes wrong.

As a bargain alternative consider the Smith & Wesson rigging knife, which offers the basic hawkbill rope-cutting blade and marlin spike in a neat and sturdy pocket folder package, for a very reasonable price. The Smith & Wesson is the closest match I could find for my first rigging knife, given to me decades ago by my very mysterious uncle. It took me probably twenty years to figure out what the spike was for, although I imagined all sorts of interesting applications. When I finally got to the coast and started sailing, the meaning of the spike blade was suddenly clear.

My uncle’s career is something I still wonder about. When he retired to the Ozarks I acquired some of the things he no longer felt he needed, and spent many hours hypnotized by his stories and his eclectic souvenirs. I wonder now whether he told me the truth when he said that the government had sent him to the Amazon Basin, the Middle East, and Afghanistan just to teach local farmers how to harness and drive Missouri mules. Considering that the items I acquired from him included a WWI Garand bayonet, an engineer’s set of mapping and survey instruments, a radiation detector and a complete set of government-issue surgical instruments labeled “Venereal Disease Kit,” — all of these things having apparently seen a lot of hard use — it seems he might have been involved in something more than the Missouri mule export business.

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