Saturday, January 12, 2008

Remembering Captain Charley

Here' s an article I wrote for the Sun Herald's South Mississippi Outdoors and Recreation magazine about Captain Charley, one of my neighbors at Biloxi's Point Cadet Marina.

Captain Charley: A lifetime working with ropes

“With old sailors it was, and is, a matter of pride to be able to make knots, the more difficult and obscure the better.” Page 323, The Ashley Book of Knots

Captain Charley Strickland, Ret., is a seaman, and by his estimation, being called by that term is the highest honor anyone could bestow upon him. He was born in a tarpaper shack in Hardin County, Texas in 1938, and like his father and grandfather and most of the men in his family, soon found his way to sea. His first job was aboard a tug working the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas, and that’s where he began his apprenticeship as a seaman.

From day one on board his first vessel, Charley learned the importance of rope. “Rope is literally the ‘lifeline’ of every vessel and is the most essential equipment on board” Charley says. His first job on board the tug was to make the rope fenders necessary to bring the boat alongside another vessel or a dock without damage, and to this day he prefers these “seaman-like” fenders to the inflatable plastic ones most modern boaters buy from discount stores. He learned to make the massive bow and stern pieces called “bow pudding” and “stern pudding and learned to make the traditional “monkey’s fist” knot in the end of a heaving line that enables one to throw it to another crew member on a dock or other vessel even in high winds. He learned to tie bowlines and clove hitches and make eye splices, end splices and short splices for joining two pieces of rope. In addition to these everyday knots in constant use aboard a working vessel, he learned to tie the more elaborate and obscure endless knots called “Turks heads” and to make plaited mats of rope.

Captain Charley’s career on working boats included holding practically every position on board a vessel at one time or another. He has worked as a cook, chief engineer, able-bodied seaman, mate and master. As a captain, he worked all over the southern Gulf of Mexico, operating for years out of such ports as Ciudad del Carmen, Dos Bocas, and Tampico. Although he left the sea for awhile to work on high steel as a master rigger on a construction job, his love of boats soon overcame the appeal of higher pay and he found his way back to his beloved Gulf. Captain Charley believes that seaman are made, not born, and that most men that have it in their blood would work for free if that’s the only way they could go to sea. He admits that being a seaman can be a lonely life, and that it’s hard to be a family man and spend a life at sea. He’s been married several times, but now lives with his dog, Hobo, on a small sailboat that he hopes to soon trade for a larger one that will be a more comfortable home. He also plans to voyage back to the Mexican coast he knows so well when he acquires and properly equips his new boat.

To Captain Charley it’s an atrocity to see a boat improperly tied up and to see so many modern sailors who have little regard for their boats or for taking care of the lines on board them and learning to tie proper knots. He says he looks at a boat the way a younger man looks at a woman, and that he’s never seen an ugly boat. “If anybody thinks it’s ugly, let it pull alongside when he’s sinking…” he says.

Captain Charley is adamant that anyone who goes to sea should know how to tie a variety of traditional knots and should have a splicing fid on board to make splices. He’s happy to teach anyone who shows the slightest interest in seamanship. There’s nothing he would rather do with is his time than teach his craft, especially to youngsters, as he believes these skills are a dying art.

Captain Charley can be found most any day at Slip D-39 in Point Cadet Marina. He may soon trade up to that larger boat, but you’ll know which one is his by the rope mats on deck and the monkey’s fist knots hanging from the boom. Anyone who is interested in learning more about traditional marlinspike seamanship can talk to Captain Charley at the Gulf Coast Wooden Boat Show on May 14-15. He’ll be there displaying a variety of rope mats, decorative knots, and even his version of knot art in the form of rope sculptures.

(This article was first published in South Mississippi Outdoors and Recreation,April 2005, then on Island Time Online on 5-5-2005)

Captain Charley passed away just days before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and just a few short months after I interviewed him and took these photos.

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"A boat is freedom, not just a way to reach a goal."
Bernard Moitessier - A Sea Vagabond's World


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