Coast Guardsmen leave their mark in many ways - including 'fancy work'

Seamen decorate with knots that any of their predecessors would recognize instantly

Posted: Tuesday, June 01, 2004

KODIAK - Much has changed in the 214 years since the forerunners of today's Coast Guard hoisted canvas aloft, but filling the time during remote patrols can still tie sailors in knots.

Using "fancy work" techniques their predecessors would recognize instantly, seamen Michael Scalzo and Travis Button of the Coast Guard cutter Storis tie an intricate pattern of orange and white nylon lines around a pole. The pole supports a television shelf in the ship's upper recreation deck.

"It's pretty much a knot we use every day," Button said, wrapping another overhand turn around a tautly stretched standing line.

Upper rec is one of two areas where Storis crew members can congregate comfortably indoors. On a Thursday morning in May, off-duty personnel occupy seven or eight of the cushioned chairs that fill up the cramped, low-ceiling room.

In this officer-free zone, the crew members read, watch movies, swap stories or just wait for their next watch.

Scalzo jokes that he does it "because there's nothing else to do," and the tying does provide a mild distraction for their colleagues. Most of them use this hour to study for their unending series of qualification tests, but they can't help watching the colorful sleeve progress line by line down the pole.

Critiquing the fancy work provides as much entertainment as doing it, and unsolicited suggestions for the color scheme sound like a debate about how to redecorate a home.

For Scalzo, the end result means more than just a detail in the decor. It's also a way of making a unique place for this time in his memory, and he looks forward to saying, "Hey, I did that this patrol."

The intertwined strands become a mnemonic device linked to events - like yesterday's live fire exercise or today's backed-up heads - and the comrades who shared them.

Evidence of past efforts decorate handrails and support poles, or stanchions, throughout the ship.

Commissioned in 1942, Storis is the oldest cutter in the Coast Guard fleet, and none of the current crew can say what memories are wrapped into the fancy work on the mess deck or along the passageways of the main deck.

"I know I can finish this by the end of the patrol," Scalzo said.

Ten days into the patrol, Seaman John Boyer has come to regret a more ambitious boast.

As Storis prepared to leave Kodiak, Boyer chose the wide, 6 1/2 foot, deck-to-overhead stanchion in the middle of the cabin, and began to weave using 58 separate lines. He told crew mates he would finish in about a day, but now admits the project is "obviously a little more time-consuming than I thought.

"Now, if I get it done this month I'll be happy," Boyer said.

The large stanchion has become a community project, and several people take a few minutes during the day to add a line or two of knots. But the main burden rests with Boyer, who patiently takes his turns around the pole.

He tries to get as far as possible every day before knocking off when the movies begin at 4 p.m. He doesn't want to obstruct the TV screen any more than the pole already does by itself.

"They'd probably tackle me," he said.

By the end of this session, the weave extends more than 4 feet, and the end is in sight. When the knotted lines reach about 6 inches from the deck they will be painted with lacquer to preserve them and, incidentally, save future crews from having to repaint the pole.

Boyer's qualifications as a practitioner of fancy work more than make up for his miscalculation of the time this particular project would take.

"In middle school I decided I really liked sailing," the Gig Harbor, Wash., native said. "So I studied every book I could get my hands on."

That included texts on tying both useful and purely decorative knots. The knowledge served him well before he joined the Coast Guard, when he sailed his own boat or crewed on racing yachts.

Boyer also feels fancy work, also called "grafting," connects him to the mariners of bygone eras.

Nearby, Scalzo and Button continue wrapping the smaller support, leaving their mark on the historic cutter.

"This thing will probably be here for years," Scalzo said. "How many people can say they did that on the Storis?"

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