Copyright © 1997, Peter Suber.
Knot So Fast
A proposal for regulating the world knot tying speed record
"Knot tying. The fastest recorded time for tying the six Boy Scout Handbook knots (square knot, sheet bend, sheepshank, clove hitch, round turn and two half hitches, and bowline) on individual ropes is 8.1 seconds, by Clinton R. Bailey, Sr., of Pacific City, OR on April 13, 1977."The Guiness Book of World Records, Guiness Publishing Ltd., 1996, p. 459.
New to knotting? You might want to see which six knots we're talking about here.
Thoughts on this world record and the possibility of breaking it
- Bailey's record has amazed and challenged knot tyers for two decades. There are many professional riggers and amateur knotters in the world. But in the 20 years since 1977, none has even come close to equalling Bailey's time.
- While many have tried their hand at the record, each of us has had to set up the event our own way, not knowing how Bailey did his. As a result, we don't know whether or not we are working under his conditions or whether our overall speeds are comparable to his. For example, how did he have his cords laid out? What arrangement of spars, or what rack, held the cords ready for him to grab? Did he tie his round turn with two half hitches on a spar or bollard? Were all knots tied in succession or were any two tied simultaneously? Is his record the sum of six separate times for six separate acts of tying, or one time for one act of tying six knots?
- I now have some information on how Clinton Bailey Sr. set up his cords for a speed contest, thanks to his son, Clinton ("Skip") Bailey, Jr. One day soon I'll revise some of what follows in light of what I learned.
- Without knowing the conditions of his performance, we don't really know that Bailey was faster than the current speed champs though I assume he was. If he had worked under our rules, he might have had times similar to ours. Conversely, if someone tomorrow breaks Bailey's record, we won't really know whether the new champ is faster than Bailey.
- I propose, therefore, that the International Guild of Knot Tyers (IGKT) should lay down precise rules for this contest. Once the rules are established, we will keep track of the world speed record as set by knotters following the new rules.
- I revere Clinton Bailey, Sr. This proposal is not at all an attempt to undercut his achievement. It is a way to make the record more meaningful by allowing the comparison of times recorded on different occasions. Only in this way can cunning knotters practice for this challenge, knowing in advance the conditions that will be required for official recognition.
- The content of the rules is less important to me than having some standardized set of rules for recognizing future speed records. Here is a sample set of rules:
- Knotters must use different cords for each knot.
- Rationale. To verify after the event that all six knots were tied.
- When the contest begins, the seven cords (one for each knot, two for the sheet bend) will be laid out on a firm, horizontal spar provided by the venue. The venue will also provide a vertical bollard for the clove hitch. Knotters may lay out the cords on the spar themselves, putting them at any distance apart, folding over the spar at any point along their lengths. In the initial position, no cord may cross itself or another cord, or make a round turn around the spar.
- Rationale. Who knows enough to stipulate a layout of the cords that won't slow down some contestants? The spar should be firm, like a wooden rail, rather than a length of thick rope, so it will not swing or sway during the contest. No knot should be half-tied already in the initial layout.
- We might make an exception for the sheet bend. One cord might be tied to the spar in the initial state, allowing the contestant to use the untied free end for the bend. Or both cords might start tied to the spar, and the bend tied between the two free ends.
- Instead of the plain horizontal spar, we might let knotters set up their own arrangement of spars, provided they meet certain conditions. One reason to do so is to bring the times down, just as Olympic pools use cold water to promote faster swimming. One reason not to do so is to avoid complexity in the rules and the appearance that the skill of the knotters is highly condition-sensitive.
- Knotters may use cord of any length, diameter, and material.
- Rationale. Who knows enough to stipulate these parameters without needlessly slowing down some contestants? Let the experts chose the cord that works best for them. I would even let knotters use different kinds of cord (at least different colors) for the different knots.
- Knotters may tie the six knots in any order they choose.
- Rationale. Similarly, who knows enough to stipulate the order without needlessly restraining someone? Let the players chose the order that suits them best.
- When a knot is completed, knotters may drop it in any way at all in moving to the next cord and the next knot.
- Rationale. This is to prevent neatness from counting. Nothing extraneous to knotting skill and speed should contaminate the contest. This rule really applies only the sheepshank and sheet bend, since the others will be attached to the spar or bollard.
- Knotters may use any methods they like to tie the knots, provided that they manipulate the cord only with their hands.
- Rationale. Don't limit contestants to canonical methods. Let the contest trigger the development of new and more efficient methods. Don't let contestants stretch the ordinary sense of "knot tying" by using their teeth or feet, let alone exotic tools or helpers.
- Knotters must touch only one cord at a time, except when tying the sheet bend, when they may touch only two cords at a time.
- Rationale. Don't allow the last gesture on knot A to be the first gesture on knot B. We might restate this rule to allow knotters simultaneously to drop the cord for knot A with their left hand and pick up the new cord for knot B with their right.
- The timekeeping, and verification of the knots, shall be done by reputable people experienced (respectively) in timing sporting events and tying knots.
- Rationale. Don't require the same person to do both jobs, simply because the combination might be hard to find. Require a experienced knot tyer to verify the knots, but don't require an IGKT official; otherwise, far flung individuals will have little hope of entering this contest.
- If we admit that the establishment of rules such as these essentially creates a new event, then we might alter other aspects of it as well. For example, are these the six knots we most want to encourage speed tyers to master? Should we replace the round turn with two half hitches with a simple pair of half hitches?
- We might want to stipulate that the round turn with two half hitches be tied on the spar, not the bollard. If we let it circle the bollard, then times will be faster, but most people will think the bollard gave illicit assistance to the knotter.
- It might be difficult to regulate what counts as one of these knots. For example, one of my speed-methods for tying a square knot sometimes results in a cow hitch, which is topologically equivalent. Should this count, or should we ask the knotters to make the last gesture to turn it into a square knot? The two half hitches and sheepshank can be tied more quickly if they are very loose. But how loose can they be and still count as two half hitches and a sheepshank? Is it enough if all the crossings of a knot are present, or should it be somewhat snug too?
- What's my interest in this? For several years, I have worked on speed methods for tying these six knots. I now tie them in under 2 seconds apiece, when I tie nothing else. Two of the knots (square knot and bowline), I tie in much closer to one second, sometimes less. I can tie the round turn with two half hitches, minus the round turn, in about one second too. If I add up the times for the separate tying of each of the six knots, I get a total very close to Bailey's record. But when I tie all six without stopping, I never come close. What takes the most time is what is objectively easiest physically moving to the next cord after completing a knot, physically picking it up and getting it into position for the first tying gesture. I can minimize these "interstitial" times with a customized array of spars holding the cords ready for my use. But the more I configure the array, the more I wonder whether I am violating reasonable rules for the contest. I'd abandon my array for a plain rail if that is what the rules required. That would slow me down, but it would slow down all contestants equally. I assume I'm not the only one who'd simply like to know what the rules require so we can practice under conditions that will be recognized as valid for an official time.
I've only just started to collect bibliographic citations. I know there are articles in past issues of Knotting Matters, which I'll try to dig up. I'd appreciate hearing about any other known literature.
Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374,
firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 1998, Peter Suber.