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Meaning of “Oakum Strands”

Hints as to why this is the title of the book can be found with the following illustration descriptions and reference in the stories.

02 pg 4. Applying oakum caulking to a ship’s hull

Image is a Stephen Hopkins painting: “Caulking a ship's hull”, courtesy of the Ladd family and found at Oakum is a preparation of tarred fiber used traditionally for caulking the joints of timbers, hull, and deck planking on wooden sailing ships. It is forced between the seams using special caulking irons and hammers, then sealed into place with hot pitch or similar substance. The commingling of many separate and individual strands of oakum gives the strength needed to securely seal the seams. Used as symbolism for the title of this book, ‘Oakum Strands’ demonstrates how the many experiences one accumulates in life builds their own uniqueness, character, and strength.

Chapter 2: The Windlass

Pages 24 & 25

Even though we had just met earlier that day for the first time, we both felt at ease speaking with a mentor-student closeness. His passion for owning a wooden sailing ship, especially a schooner like the Four Winds, became more enthusiastically expressed with the next drink. Clearly, he loved all things sailing! Finding an eager ear, he spoke at length about life at sea and his desire to do things the traditional way. As he continued, I tried to steer the discussion to encourage him to explain more about what I had learned while onboard his schooner. Bringing up his earlier reference to deck-seam caulking set him off on a lengthy explanation about the dying art of traditional caulking skills that are so important for wooden ships. He stressed that having access to good quality ‘oakum’ was essential.

Rick pointed out that oakum traditionally came from a tedious process of separating, by hand, individual strands of old rope. These days, oakum is mainly derived from newly harvested jute or hemp. Soaking in tar or oil made individual oakum strands waterproof and strong. After being rolled together into long sections, it was then forced into the deck seams and pounded in place with specialized hammers and caulking irons. He lamented that finding authentic oakum was exceedingly rare, “since fiberglass-hulled boats were taking over the sailing world.” Much of what we discussed used new vocabulary, and to me represented genuine ‘salty’ talk between mariners. It was captivating and made me eager to learn more.

11 pg 24. Oakum caulking material and tools

Image courtesy of ‘Maine Windjammer Cruises’. Described by Rick during our first encounter in Singapore when he emphasized the importance and value of good quality oakum.

Chapter 11: Farewell Good Ship

Page 121

Stout Fibers

First-time sailors also learn that survival at sea depends on the quality of a vessel’s maintenance, the food and other supplies brought onboard, training of the crew, the captain’s capability to lead, and all crucial life-or-death decisions made along the way. These are the qualities that must come together to form a successful whole—just as a superior line, lanyard, or rope is only as good as its stout individual fibers. This intermingling of so many strong fibers—especially those found in the oakum used to seal the deck seams and hull of a wooden boat—is what gives a seaworthy vessel its strength, character, and ability to stay afloat.

51 pg 122. The strength of ‘Oakum Strands’

Wooden ships must be caulked. Best material for this purpose is oakum. Quality is dependent on individual oakum strands that when mingled together give the necessary strength and reliability, the exact symbolism for this book title. Courtesy of traditional-oakum-caulking/products.

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1 commentaire

Bill Smith
Bill Smith
12 mai 2021

Also used in bell & spigot plumbing. I have not used it in decades.

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