Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Sailors Knife or a Pointless Story

Thought I'd give you a break from Celestial Navigation and Terrestrial Navigation and pass this interesting bit of information on the "Sailors Knife".

The lore involves the points on sailor's knives, or rather the lack there of. Sailor's rope knives traditionally have no points. As far as I can discover, there is no functional reason for this. After all, a knife with a point will cut line just as well as a knife without a point. The story I have seen and heard holds that, on most ships, sailor's were not allowed to carry pointed knives, to discourage them from stabbing each other when the strains of a long voyage under sail got to be too much for some of them to bear.

A friend of mine found this book "The Making of a Sailor", or Sea Life Aboard a Yankee Square-Rigger, by one Frederick Pease Harlow. The book was published in 1928, but recounts the author's experiences at sea as a boy about six decades earlier. On pages 90-93 Harlow describes the outset of a voyage to Melbourne, Australia. The first and second mates are choosing up the port and starboard watches for the voyage from the newly hired crew. The first mate, naturally, chooses first. I choose you, What's your name? Hans, sir, he replied. Let me have your knife, requested the mate, who stood on top of the main hatch, with a hammer in his hand, which he was all the while turning and twisting. Upon receiving the sheath-knife, which is as much a part of sailor's uniform as his overalls and is always carried in a sheath or scabbard, hanging from a strap about the waist and back of the hips, where it is handy for cutting line, for a sailor is not dressed without his knife, the mate put the point of the knife across the iron band on top of the combings of the hatch and struck a sharp blow with the hammer, breaking off the point.

You probably didn't have the mate, in your last ship, break the point off your knife. said Mr. Burris. But I always keep a ship sweet and clean by seeing that every knife aboard the ship has no point. This is for your own protection. If you get into a fight with a shipmate you know you can't stick him with your knife or he, you. Knowing this you both will fight like men and use your fists, the weapons God has given you to fight with. Returning the knife to Hans, he was told to stand over to the port rail. The second mate then chose Jim Dunn. His knife was broken in the same manner and he was told to stand over to the starboard rail. The selection and knife breaking continued until the 14 men and two boys were all divided into two watches.

Going forward, I followed the men into the forecastle. A big Irishman by the name of O'Rourke, was much put out by having his knife point broken and was saying as I entered, I don't know phat ye's fellers tink about it, an I haven't been to sea for ten years, but fifteen years ago I sailed in the (Clipper) ships Live Yankee (built 1853, wrecked 1861) and the Phantom and if ships of that caliber can make a vi age widout breakin our knives, why in the --- does an old tub like this wan want to do it?

The answer to seaman O'Rourke's question very likely lay in a Federal maritime law enacted in 1866, during the ten year interval when he had been ashore. First Mate Burris had in fact not gone nearly as far as the new law required. The Act of Congress of July 27, 1866, which is still the law (Title 46 u.s. Code, Section 710) reads:

Carrying sheath knives. No seaman in the merchant service shall wear any sheath knife on shipboard. It shall be the duty of the master of any vessel registered, enrolled, or licensed under the laws of the United States, and of the person entering into contract for the employment of a seaman upon any such vessel, to inform every person offering to ship himself of the provisions of this section, and to require his compliance there with, under a penalty of $50 for each omission.

Note that the penalty for a violation falls not on the sailor, but on the captain or the owner's agent. As far as I know, U.S. Navy sailors at this time, and up until World War II, were only allowed to carry folding knives, and those had to have square tipped blades.