Islander keeps tradition of nautical knots alive
If you were a sailor in the 18th century and needed a job, what would be on your résumé?
How many times you had been around the world? How many countries you had seen? How many whales you had harpooned? How many storms you had survived?
“Knots,” said Galveston resident Denny Norris — that was a sailor’s résumé.
Sailors spent a lot of time on boats, and knots were, and still are, a necessity on a ship — an essential part from launch to dock and every bit in between. The longer a sailor was at sea, the more intricate his knots became. Sailors displayed their skill on their peacoats, and a captain could actually see someone’s experience. Sailors were hired based on how well they could tie a knot.
Eventually, knot-tying developed from the thing that kept a ship afloat into something that also made the ship look more like the home it was, sometimes for years for a crew. A wrap on a wheel not only let the captain know where his rudder was, it helped him grip it during a storm and made it look nice. On a ladder, it kept a sailor from plummeting to his death. And creating a design specific to a ship gave a sailor something to do during a long voyage.
The skill was passed from sailor to sailor, and if a sailor wanted to learn a particular knot, he’d have to wait until he met a man who could teach it to him, and then he’d have to trade another knot for it.
But, like much of everything else, the art began to fade over time, supplanted by time-saving measures such as pre-tied knots. Sailors began to forget how to tie knots, especially the more intricate, artistic knots.
That didn’t sit well with Capt. Olin Winkler, who taught Seamanship 101 at Galveston College in 1975. The former shark fisherman required his students to tie knots to pass his class, and that was where a more than 40-year love affair began for Norris.
Norris spent 40 years as a ship agent for supply boats in the Gulf of Mexico. He worked six hours on, six hours off. And, like the sailors of old, that left him with time to kill, and time to sharpen his knot-tying skills.
Now semi-retired, Norris’ hobby has become a business — Knotworks. He deals with a lot of antiques, creating beckets for 100-year-old sea chests, wrapping ship wheels for antique stores and tying his own creations for sale online and at local farmers markets.
Norris tries to keep his knots, which are called hand-tied marlinspike fancy knots, as historically accurate to the clipper-ship era as possible, so he uses a supplier in North Carolina for his line. For color variations, he uses shellac or varnish.
All ropes on a ship are called lines except for one — the bell rope, and a complete skill set can be displayed on this work. Making a ship’s bell rope earns a sailor bragging rights, said Norris, who is proud to have made the bell ropes for almost every ship he was on. One he is particularly proud of is on display at Rosenberg Library as part of the library’s exhibit on Galveston’s shipping industry.
The mark of an artist is to make a contribution to the form, and Norris has made his. The sea candle is Norris’ own creation, a continuous cord that can have up to nine different knots in one piece.
“You can’t get this anywhere else,” Norris said.
Norris, who made a wrap for a friend’s flounder gig and bow pudding,” or a fender, for the bow of another friend’s boat, likes the way knots look, he said.
The first knot board Norris ever saw was on Battleship Texas, which took part in some of the most significant naval battles of the 20th century during both world wars and is now docked along the Houston Ship Channel.
“I was fascinated by it,” Norris said.
Visit Knotworks at Facebook: www.facebook.com/boiknotworks/