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Messing About with Monkey Fists
by Paul Haynie

I am always amazed by the strange trivia that has survived in my brain from my childhood. For instance, I have a vivid memory of my father mentioning, more than forty years ago, that when he had been in US Navy basic training during the waning days of WWII, he had been taught to make a knot called a "Monkey Fist". He described the knot as something that put a knob on the end of a rope to make it easier to throw. He had long since forgotten how to make the knot, of course, but both the name and the concept fascinated me, and the conversation stayed with me.

A few years ago my wife chose to cater to my growing boat mania by buying me a book on knots that included the instructions for the Monkey Fist. I learned to form the knot, and being me, immediately started to experiment with it.

The basic Monkey fist is built with three turns, is hollow, and the working end of the rope exits the knot to form a doubled tail. Something, ranging from lead foil to cork, is usually built into the center of the knot, in the interest of better serving its historic mission as the business end of a "heaving line".

With a bit of modification, however, another use presents itself. In a day when braided rope is the norm, most of the traditional rope end knots, which are formed from stranded rope, are impractical. By the simple expedient of knotting the working end of the rope and drawing it back into the knot, the Monkey Fist becomes a bulky and attractive rope end or stopper. Its biggest drawback in such a role is that the knot eats up a LOT of rope, on the order of 100 times the rope's thickness.

Another possibility is to use the Monkey Fist to swallow BOTH ends of a loop of rope, to form a sling. While the knot will be obvious, the rope ends will not be, which is always desirable.

Some examples (all formed from 3/16 braided line):

An ALMOST standard Monkey Fist, the only variation being that it is built with four turns rather than three (the core I used was too big to work well with only three turns), made up as a heaving line with the working end of the line formed into a hangman's knot around the standing part.

A Monkey Fist sampler: A hollow two tailed knot, formed of only two turns (the knot can be formed with a single turn, but the shape is unrecognizable); a three turn single tailed knot, with a figure eight pulled into the knot as a core; a five turn knot with a three turn knot (just like the one at the other end of the line) as a core. There are about six feet of rope in that five turn knot, all told.

A sail tie, formed from a three turn Monkey Fist with both ends of the line joined with a Carrick Bend and pulled back into the knot. Toss the Monkey Fist over the sail and boom, form the bight into a Lark's Head, drop the Monkey Fist through the Lark's Head and tighten it, and then pull the whole thing snug. More work than a bungee cord, but also prettier.

Finally, just because I am doing knots and want to show off, a five strand Star Knot formed of 1/8 line, made to directions found in Hervey Garrett Smith's "The Marlinspike Sailor". Very pretty, but useless. The more diseased portions of my brain are urging me to make a spherical sculpture consisting of 62 three, four and five plait Star Knots, and requiring 120 two foot pieces of 1/8" line; so far I have resisted the impulse.

And as a final thought: Remember, if you think very hard about boats while you are doing it, it isn't Macrame, it's Marlinspike Seamanship.


Paul Haynie