Walk into Marlinespike Chandlery, a small Stonington shop on a one-lane road overlooking Penobscot Bay, and you’re bound to have lots of questions. The shop smells heavily of pine tar, and its walls are covered in nautical-themed amalgamations of rope, wood, brass and canvas. The objects have names like beckets, sheaves and cleats, but what were these things used for, and how were they made? Most importantly, what is a marlinespike chandlery?
“The marlinespike is a tool that was useful for various rigging, sailing, and sail-repair type jobs with rope-rigged sailing vessels,” said Tim Whitten, who owns and operates the shop.
Whitten is one of the world’s few marlinespike masters, since most mariners traded their sails in for engines nearly two centuries ago. Back then, the marlinespike, a foot-long metal cone, was used to separate lines of rope. Though the term ‘marlinespike seamanship’ expanded to cover a wide range of ropework and knot tying, Whitten is quick to point out that knots are not the only trick he’s got.
“I don’t like being referred to as ‘the knot guy,’” said the Connecticut native with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. “Marlinespike work is really a combination of techniques like knitting, embroidery, tapestry-weaving and kumihimo — an intricate form of Japanese braiding — that sailors and fishermen borrowed from with a nautical focus.”
To demonstrate, Whitten took out a lanyard used to ring the bell on a ship, or the doorbell on a house. At first it looks like a simple bit of rope, but this lanyard was made of six separate pieces of twine, each strung in a unique, intricate pattern around the lanyard’s core.
“The core is a blank canvas,” Whitten said. “Though it has functional origin, it is an art form, and some people will buy it just for the artistic quality.”
Whitten didn’t think he would be spinning art out of twine until the year 2000, when he rediscovered a book he had bought with his parents at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut when he was 10 years old. The book, the “Harrison Book of Knots,” sparked an interest within him that had been dormant for 20 years.
“My one skill is the ability to make and do things with my hands,” said Whitten, who relied on books, the Internet and his training as an engineer to show himself the ropes of fancy ropework, the artistic side of marlinespike seamanship. “I was creative enough to visualize how to tie individual components into a finished thing.”
Whitten soon started selling his bell-hangers and beckets (the intricate handles on a sailor’s sea chest) at wooden boat festivals around the country, where traditional boaters took notice of his work. Whitten certainly didn’t mind the praise.
“Nobody goes over a bridge and says, ‘Wow this is a great bridge, who’s the engineer who designed this?’” said the former engineering student. “But everybody who came by my booth and saw the bell hangers said, ‘Wow this is great!’”
Eventually, Whitten was generating more inventory than he knew what to do with. In 2002, he launched marlinespike.com to sell his stuff online.
“I didn’t have a lot of competition,” said Whitten, who has read “Moby-Dick” at least six times. “So I was fortunate enough to get onto the first page of Google search results. People all over the world are finding my website.”
In 2008, Whitten moved from Potsdam, N.Y., where he earned his engineering degrees, to Stonington, where he opened up his chandlery. Chandleries were like Home Depots for ocean-bound sailing vessels, and Whitten’s shop feels like a step back to that era. When business picks up during the summer months, many customers ask Whitten where he went to art school.
“And I’ll explain that I didn’t go to art school, I studied engineering,” he said. “But to be a successful engineer you have to have an artistic mind, so that you can think of problems to solve and creative solutions to solve them.”
And maybe that’s how Tim Whitten got marlinespike seamanship tied down.
Make a fashion statement. Linen cord necklaces with smooth beach stone pendants are among the most popular items at Marlinespike Chandlery.
Where: West Main Street, Stonington
Hours: Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday by chance or by appointment