Left to its own devices, both laid and braided
rope will start to unravel from the ends at an alarming rate.
A number of means exist to prevent this, but the best, and also
oldest, is "whipping," wherein small thin line is wrapped
around and secured to the end of a larger line.
The term whipping comes from the compound word whipcord, a thin
tough hemp strand used in finishing off the ends of whips. References
as far back as the 1300s show that whipcord was also used to tightly
bind things subject to rough service, like the ends of rope, the
fastening of fish
hooks to line, the marking of a church's bell ropes, or around
an archer's bow string.
Today though, whipping's most important use is to prevent the
lines on your boat from falling apart. This condition of shaggy-ended
rope has been variously known as cowtails,
deadmen, or by the British as either Saxon flags, Dutch pennants,
or Irish pennants (depending on whom they were feeling superior
to at the time).
Until the 1940s, whipping was the only solution to the prevention
of a line's unraveling. But with the advent of synthetic ropes,
which melt when heat is applied, we now have a second line of
defense. This procedure of fusing the fibers at a rope's end is
sneered at by traditionalists yet loved by most professional riggers.
Like anything else, if it's done right, it works.
To "nuke the nylon" or perform a "BIC backsplice,"
you tape over the area to be cut with either masking or electrician's
tape, or use a constrictor knot (See "Ropelocker," SBJ
#64). This prevents an initial unraveling, or further unraveling
if you've let things go already. Cut the line as described in
"The Sailor's Knife" (SBJ #60).
Once the line is cut, you'll need a tool to melt the line's
end into a smooth, rounded, and slightly tapered blob. The electric
cutting knife or guillotine that was probably used at the place
where vou bought the line is best for this. Next best is a pocket-sized
butane-powered heat tool. If you. don't have either, your next
choice is a knife kept hot by an open flame, like a stove burner.
CAUTION: Heating a knife will draw the temper from the metal.
The worst tool to use is a match or lighter. They leave sooty
deposits on the line and allow no control of the shaping of the
melted fibers. Again, the objective is to obtain a rounded, slightly
tapered mass of nylon) dacron, or whatever. Do this by working
from the edges inward, making sure that the finished work has
no hard edges that can cut your hands. Be careful not to inhale
the fumes, and keep your heat source away from other parts of
For thin line, or line that will see very light usage, melting
the ends may be enough. But for the majority of lines used on
a boat, (e.g., dock lines, anchor rodes, halyards, sheets), you
must also use a whipping to prevent unraveling.
Most marine hardware stores will carry some generic stuff called
whipping or sailmaker's thread. Make sure it is synthetic (dacron
is best) and prewaxed, if available. Do not fall prey to the temptation
of using tarred marline. It is usually too thick to be used on
lines commonly found on a yacht, and prone to rot since it is
made from natural fibers. In case of an emergency, you can always
use dental floss.
Placement of the whipping on the line is very important. Usually,
about 3/8 inch is good on lines whose ends have been melted, and
closer to the end on natural fiber lines that have to be passed
through blocks. The length of the whipping itself should be equal
to the diameter of the rope. Traditionally, whippings have been
applied against the lay, that is in a direction opposite to those
of the strands. This makes sense because the fibers, yarns, and
strands of a rope are twisted in opposite directions, so any tendency
of one to loosen simultaneously tightens the others. But in practice,
a whipping can often be put on tighter when it follows the lay
of the rope. And the first goal of a whipping is to be as tight
as possible. I suggest you try both and go with whichever feels
right. Braided line has no lay to worry about.
click image to enlarge
You should also whip towards the end of the rope, rather than
working from the end inwards. This tends to force any stray kinks
or loose fibers out towards the end.
There are infinite varieties of whippings. The two I'll show
here are the most practical and easiest to tie. They are good
whippings, and if done right could last the life of a line. But
they should not be thought of as permanent. The only way to achieve
this is by stitching the whipping to the line, which I will explain
how to do in the next "Ropelocker."
This is just what it says: the most popular, and generally most
useful, of all whippings.
- Make a bight in a length of thread. Lay it against the line
to be whipped.
- Wrap the thread as tightly as possible over the bight, working
towards the rope's end.
- After you have made a sufficient number of turns around the
rope) tuck the working end through the bight.
- Pull firmly on the standing end to trap the working end midway
beneath the turns of the whipping. Trim the exposed ends as
short as possible.
One of the problems with this kind of whipping is that if you
make the turns too tight, you may not be able to pull the bight
through without breaking the line. If you make the turns too loose
though, the whole thing falls apart. When in doubt, opt for the
taut, and take your chances.
West Country Whipping
The West Country is England's southwesternmost point, which
terminates in Land's End, the last bit of the Queen's soil visible
until a ship reached the New World. It's a ruggedly independent
part of the country known for its terrible weather, dangerous
coast, and a level of seamanship that is necessarily very high.
To an English sailor, the West Country means something that is
tough and a little bit different. The best feature of this sort
of whipping is that, unlike the common whipping, it will not come
completely undone if one of the turns is cut or wears away.
- Cut a length of thread, middle it, place it around the rope
to be whipped, and tie an overhand knot. Pull this very tight
to secure the thread. If your thread is waxed, it will probably
hold, but if there is any slippage, you can double the overhand
knot, making it similar to the start of a surgeon's knot (SBJ
- Now make another overhand knot on the opposite side of the
rope. Pull tight. Come back to the first side, and make another
overhand knot next to the first.
- Continue like this, making overhand knots on opposite sides,
until a sufficient length has been covered. Make every knot
very tight, and keep all turns as close together as possible.
Finish off the last overhand knot as a reef knot, or as a surgeon's
knot Just to be sure. Cut off the exposed ends.
Correspondent DAVID SEIDMAN is a
former delivery captain and trans-Atlantic sailor.