Staying sharp on the boat and in the galley means any seadog worth his (or her) salt should pack a practical blade
There’s no argument that lifejackets save lives. But who’s heard an Old Salt’s advice that a sharp knife is a sailor’s best friend? Captain Blackbeard knew that a shiny cutlass was more compelling than a performance review. Malcolm Douglas wouldn’t go up a river without one. Let me get right to the point. A good knife is a very bloody useful thing on a boat.
Case in point: In 2011 two sailors died in the Chicago to Mackinac yacht race in the US. Their bodies were found beneath a capsized boat, tethered to their rigging. As a result, the rules in the US changed and now every crewmember must carry a knife. Whether you’re at the helm of the Black Pearl, tall ship, trawler, tinnie or raft, every skipper should pack a knife of some sort. But what blade to brandish? Here are a few pointed ideas.
BLADES WITH WAVES
Most seafarers think serrated knives are pretty useless on a boat unless you’re cutting a T-bone steak. They mangle braid, shred fish fillets and lose their edge faster than Tony Abbott at a Gay Pride March. But they are bloody good at cutting rope and harnesses in an emergency, and they’ll stay sharp forever. So pack one in and keep it close.
FOLDING BLADES VS SHEATHED
In times of old, the rigger’s knife was sheathed, designed to be whipped out quickly in times of need and often used in concert with a mallet. This design evolved into the folding style that incorporated a marlinspike. Blades like these have been issued by the military for over a century. Companies like Gill and Captain Currey have expanded on the classic design. Affixed with a lanyard to avoid loss, rigger’s knives are a favourite because of their compact size. On the downside, folding knives can be hard to find quickly and may need two hands to open – not great characteristics in an emergency.
A sheathed safety blade is the more accessible option popular with divers and Crocodile Dundee. They have a blunt point so they don’t inadvertently stab the bladder of your PFD, your life raft or your manhood. Compact in size, they’re generally made of stainless steel. Modern blunt-tipped blades like the Gerber River Shorty have been designed for rafting, paddling and diving. They’re not bad at opening the odd oyster, either. They have an aggressively hard-plastic, non-slip handle and a scabbard that can be worn on your belt, boot or PFD.
This isn’t the place to talk about how pirates remain a scourge on the oceans, even close to our nation’s shores. (There’s always time to talk about pirates – The Captain.) So let’s get nostalgic and consider some of their old-time tools of the trade.
Before modern pirates armed themselves with AK47s and took to their banana boats, the weapon of choice was the cutlass. These days, most of them are displayed in museums, but I once knew a salty old bloke who swore by his Pioneer Short Sword. He used it to practise Ikejime (a Japanese method of paralysing fish to maintain meat quality) and reckoned it was also good for cutting rope in an emergency. Other than the cutlass, pirates favoured machetes and bolo-style knives, using them to split coconuts, firewood or the skulls of obstinate merchant seamen.
TRANSFORM YOUR TINNIE INTO A SAMURAI WARRIOR
The ocean is full of tripwires such as stray mooring lines and abandoned fishing nets. Get one stuck in your prop and you won’t be going anywhere. That could be a major problem if you’re crossing a bar, sitting in an onshore gale, bobbing in a foggy shipping lane, or riding near a reef. Fit a device to your propshaft that will cut any stray rope for you. These come in different designs such as “Scissor”, “Disc” and “Shaver”, all with their pros and cons. We like the Australian-designed-and-made QuicKutter. They’re so good, they’re used by several of the world’s navies.
BONING VS FILLETING
Open a dictionary and the word “fillet” is defined as “a boneless cut or slice of meat”. When a landlubber says “fillet”, they’re generally referring to a “filet mignon” (French for “small boneless cut of meat”), which is a cut from the front end of a beef tenderloin. A sirloin steak is, in fact, a “filet”. You don’t need a filleting knife for this.
Some boning knives can be used for filleting and there are some all-purpose boning/filleting knives. As in most things in life, one size doesn’t fit all. Boning knives will be among the thinner blades in your galley and are specifically designed for removing bones from meat. The blades of boning knives are thin but stiff, which makes them well suited for tackling larger cuts and tougher meats like pork or beef. So use them, for example, to remove the eye of the pork loin from the backbone. A boning knife with a slightly curved blade may be good for smaller boned meat, such as poultry. A boner typically tapers to the point to allow for easy manipulation. (Not mine – The Captain.) The blade is generally no more than 15cm (six inches) long.
Thinner still, filleting knives are a type of boner, but they are designed for softer flesh and small-boned animals like fish and chicken. Fillet knives are characterised by flexible blades manoeuvrable enough to feel for the finer bones of fish and small game, and to remove thin, delicate skin. The blades of fillet knives sometimes curve upwards and the length is generally between 15-28 cm (6-11 inches). Having said that, if you’re dealing with a massive bluefin tuna, the Maguro kiri is specifically designed for the task. It has a straight edge and a flexible blade a whopping 58cm in length. The difference, simply put, is that the flexibility of the fish-filleting knife would drive you crazy when deboning pork or beef. Similarly, the stiffness of the boning knife would make it difficult to fillet a small fish.
With all the recent hype in the news about gun laws, you may be surprised to learn that law-enforcement agencies refer to Australia as having a “knife culture” rather than a gun culture. That’s because more crime is committed in Australia with knives than guns. This means there is considerable regulation around the carrying of knives. For example, it’s an offence in all states and territories to carry a knife in public without good reason. Legitimate reasons include having a knife in a genuine fishing, camping or employment context – and no-one will take your steak knife off you midway through dinner. But store away your safety blade before you enter a pub. Unless you’re MacGyver, you don’t have a reasonable need to carry it.
In an emergency situation, the best knife is the one you actually have on you. And that might be any one or a combination of blades described above. But when you’re planning for the worst, think about knives designed with survival in mind and ensure you’ve got one tucked into your life raft.
A good survival knife will fulfil a multitude of functions. The Heiman Hatchet is an Australian-designed-and-made blade with the features of an axe, spade, machete, kukri, hammer, saw, paddle, pike, sand anchor — the lot — all built into one. And with hex grips embedded into the handle and a handle braided with para-cord, the blade will give you more options than most if you find yourself in a mess out at sea. Having invented the Heiman Hatchet, you won’t be surprised to know it’s my favourite blade.
Maybe it should be yours, too. Whichever styles of knife you choose, it makes sense to become skilled with them — before your life depends on it. Maybe you can find and open a folding knife in your pocket with one gloved hand in Sea state 6. Then again, maybe that isn’t the time to find out that you can’t. Remember to attach a safety lanyard to your knife. After all, there’s no use carrying your favourite knife out to sea only to feed it to the fish. And look after it. Just like your outboard, a poorly maintained knife is likely to be a fickle friend to a sailor in need. Keep it sharp and keep it oiled with machine oil. One of the best products around is TMT by Sea Lock. Stay sharp!