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Sheep’s Feet and Marlinspikes

Growing up I always wanted a Swiss Army knife. Not the simple kind with the blade, toothpick and tweezers. I wanted the one with everything, even what I would never use. I did eventually get one, but not until I was much older. When the family used to go hiking in the Dolomites in Northern Italy we were equipped with an all purpose Opinel knife. Like many French blades it is indestructible (and believe me, my complimenting the French is almost unheard of). I still have it and never needed to do much more than add some lubricant to make sure it opened and closed as smoothly as it did the first day.

Even growing up in a city all my friends and I walked around with a good pocketknife. It was a tool just in case you needed to cut, scrape or loosen anything. Today, your kid will get sent home with a note if they are “caught” carrying one in school because it is no longer considered a tool, but a weapon. The kids are told as much and so the pocketknife in their mind is indeed a weapon. But I digress. For me a pocketknife remains a coveted object that I may not use on a daily basis, but it is there just in case, much like the flashlight in your kitchen drawer.

Of the couple of pocketknives that I do own, other than my vintage Opinel, there is one that I love dearly. There are many ways to call it, but the most common denomination in English is the sailor’s knife. Made with fisherman and sailors in mind, it usually has a hole or loop at the end of the handle meant for handing it from your belt. The shape of the blade, called “sheep’s foot”, was the only one allowed on board boats because there was less danger of its round end causing serious injuries if fights occurred amongst the often-rowdy sailors (as well as for the less romanticized safety reason of using a non-pointed blade in slippery conditions and in choppy waters). Over the years a Marlinspike was added to integrate a useful knot-handling tool and leather hole puncture. There are numerous companies that make such blades, some more traditional (L’Armor Le Sabot) and some more high-tech (Spyderco). There are many other well-known blade manufacturers that have produced a sailor knife at one time or another such as Camillus, Buck, Case, Schrade and Ka-Bar among others. They are just as useful on land as at sea even if you are not hunting Moby Dick and need to cut some fishing line or loosen a wet knot while sailing. When my son is old enough I will enjoy teaching him how to handle one of mine properly and hopefully he will hand mine down in turn.

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Try this with kids

dapper |ˈdapər| adjective (typically of a man) neat and trim in dress, appearance, or bearing.

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