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Knots of the past


The KNOT TIMER hiding under the bar

You never know where you will find an interesting item. My most recent find is a very old timer. In the process of taking out a never used bar in my family room, that I thought had been cleared out already. I found a plastic bag filled with shredded paper tucked under the counter. I almost pitched it into the trash, but it seemed a little heavier than I expected. Poking around in the bag I found a cylinder of green foam. Wrapped inside the soft foam, with an envelope tucked under the rubber band I found this –

The envelope labeled “SHIP'S KNOT TIMER” in the familiar scrawl of my father-in-law contained a page and a half description of the timer’s history and function.

My father-in-law, Wayne Martin, was from the Boston area and came from a family of both seafarers and ship builders on the Wayne side of his family. However, the note said this had been a gift from his paternal grandfather, John Martin – a name I didn’t have in my genealogy chart. It's possible that the timer was being used in the late 1800s.

The timer is less than 5” tall and one of the 3” circular bases has a chunk chipped off. The glass is protected by four not quite uniform spindles. The hand-blown glass has a visible bubble and other imperfections including a crack. One end is sealed with a cork. The filling is a mystery to me, not the normal white or beige sand – but dark charcoal grey grains. Is it black sand from the Sandwich Islands, where Captain George King Wayne sailed and found a bride, or is it some sort of metal? Whatever it is, it is extremely fine.

In my father-in-law’s write-up, he said he hadn’t personally “timed it but I recall something like 15 seconds.” In my attempts to measure it, the grains ran out at 13 seconds. I wonder if any grains have escaped from either the hairline crack or from the old cork stopper?

The story that came with the timer describes how sailing ships measured their speed at the beginning of each watch. The master of the watch with the help of other sailors would use the timer to check their speed by knots. Literally knots tied on a rope at specific intervals attached to a “chip log” designed to offer some resistance yet not sink. The log would be thrown overboard as the timer was flipped, as the rope played out, the sailors counted the knots that passed through their hands before the timer ran out. That knot speed was then entered into the ship’s “log” book.

I live in the Midwest far away from any ocean, but near Lake Michigan. To research knot timers, I called the local Wisconsin Marine Historical Society and the Captain of the S/V Denis Sullivan (a recreation of a 19th century three-masted Great Lakes sailing schooner). Both enthusiastically shed light on what they knew about knot timing. I hope to learn more about knot timers, but in the mean time I will find a safe place for this family heirloom near my harpoon, but that is another story.

Writing prompts: Have you found any tucked away treasures?

Do you have a family treasure that you should write up its significance?

Is there a resource you can ask to help you understand a family mystery?

Who is Nancy Post
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