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Learning the ropes: A brief history of cables, ropes and lines

29th March 2016

Rope: The essential kit

With advances in modern technology many essential pieces of sailing and boating equipment have evolved into unrecognisable replacements; from simple upgrades in shipbuilding materials like timber to fiberglass and steel to the use of digital navigation like GPS, radar and depth sounding in place of sextants, compasses and inclinometers. This inexorable march towards progress is inevitable but there are some items on board ships that haven’t changed (nor likely to do so) since man first took to the seas. The humble rope, in its many forms, is an essential tool on any ship; trawler, yacht or ferry whether powered by sail, oars or engine.

Essential kit, including rope, is available from Mike Cornish, for all your fishing needs.

Origins of Rope

The beginnings of the craft of rope making are lost to antiquity but there is fossilised evidence of rope in use as early as 17,000 BC. Most likely made by hand, these early remains show braiding and twisting of simple flax to form a stronger form of cabling with which to join structures. By early Egyptian times there is evidence that tools were being used to assist the rope maker in his task. The 'spinner’ method worked by tying a rock to a stick and swinging this around to twist the strands together. The Egyptians continued to develop their skill in this area with pictures from tombs c1500 BC depicting men walking whilst making rope on ‘ropewalks’ which allowed them to make longer and longer lines. This method later became mechanised and was used extensively around the world.

Rope continued to be made extensively across Europe during medieval times with Bridport in the UK becoming a hub of skilled rope makers during Tudor times. The craft became protected by a Guild with rival Master craftsmen keeping their methods secret from other ropeyards and taking on apprentices to continue their work. The industry was very lucrative and innovations in the field were exceptionally valuable. In Venice, for instance, the government owned the factories making rope and would not allow private enterprises to be in competition.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the pilgrims found that native Americans used nets made from ropes twisted together from animal sinew, rawhide and bark.

At the time of the Industrial Revolution, rope making became mechanised and yarns could be spun at greater lengths, tensions and quantities making the end product far more economical.

Over the last one hundred years rope has evolved again and is now made from synthetic fibres and can be made more durable and inexpensively.


The basic structure of any rope remains the same since those early fossilised remains and comprises of simple fibres of varying tensile strengths being processed together to form yarns; the yarns are then twisted to form strands and it is these that are used to form a rope. Rope structures vary considerably through the ages and depending upon the intended application but the basic stages of processing remained the same with only the original fibres being changed through the years.

Early ropes were made from grasses and vines with the Egyptians favouring reeds and papyrus plants. Coir, hemp and manila have all been used to make ropes and, to this day, still remain the preferred choice when using natural materials.

During shortages of hemp, sisal was plentiful on the West African trade routes and was used in great quantities; however it was not a robust choice for sailors as it perished quickly in salt water and was not as strong as manila.

Synthetic ropes are manufactured from refined oil such as polypropylene and nylon. Nylon is the preferred choice for boat mooring ropes as it has some ‘give’ in it whilst being much lighter than natural rope but significantly stronger. Polypropylene rope, however, floats on water.

Wire ropes were invented in Germany in 1834 as part of mining infrastructure but are widely used in the marine industry today.

Further advancements in recent years have seen a boom in the number of materials from which rope is constructed with each type offering different properties that are suited for their intended purpose; material such as PBO Zylon, Kevlar, Twaron, Vectran, Technora and Dyneema.

These materials are more resistant to decay from rot as well as insect and fungus infestation. Another advantage over natural materials is that they do not absorb as much moisture making them less likely to freeze.

Rope and the Maritime Industry

Beyond the many practical uses of rope on board a ship it was the sailing industry itself which relied principally on this material in the design of the rigging for its sails and anchoring mechanisms. The Encyclopedia of Useful Arts (1866) suggests that a first rate ship of war could have as much as 43 miles of rope on board, weighing as much as 78.5 tons.

Whilst most modern boats will not use quite as much rope as a 19th century warship, this versatile and essential piece of kit is still very much in use today and can be seen in mooring, anchoring, rigging and fishing.

Even a small potting boat with just seventy pots tied together at intervals of 8 fathoms at depths of 100 fathoms could have as much as a half mile of rope with which to work with. Larger potters, even in small fleets, have been known to have as much as 10-12 miles of rope in service at any given time.

All areas of the fishing industry will use rope including longliners, potters and netting boats so the scale of rope production is unlikely to slowdown in the near future.

From fenders to hawsers, lanyards to painters, fixing cargo to decoration, ropes are likely to remain an important part of a vessels operations for a long time so, the next time you pick up a length of it, consider just how far it has come since 17,000 BC.

For all your rope needs see our adverts on fafb

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