Sailors have for generations spent much of their free time at sea tying knots. There are a handful of basic knots -- the square or reef knot, the overhand knot, the sheet bend, the figure eight knot, the bowline, the half hitch, the clove hitch -- that are essential to know on a sailing ship. Many other knots are decorative.
The monkey's fist is both decorative (small versions make excellent key fobs or lamp chain pulls) and practical.
A Decorative Monkey's Fist Knot:
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Members of the US Life Saving Service effected many rescues using the Lyle gun and breeches buoy. When shipwrecks occurred far offshore on the Diamond or other shoals the breeches buoy could not be used, and the rowing surfboat was employed. Once at the site of the wreck the life savers were frequently thwarted from approaching close to the ship by floating debris in a "seething mass of breakers." It was then that a "heaving stick" (a wooden stick about 12" long attached to a light weight hemp line, and with a monkey's fist knot on the other end) was used. The monkey's fist gave enough weight to the stick to allow the life saver to toss the device a greater distance.
Once the heaving stick and line were on board the vessel, the sailors, one at a time, would tie the line around their waist and jump into the water and be pulled to the surfboat.
A Life Saver About to Throw the Heaving Stick from Shore:
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Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of Ocracoke native Major General Ira Thomas Wyche. You can read the complete story here: http://www.villagecraftsmen.com/news092110.htm.