I’m in all black, my hands coated in dust, shoulders aching from being lifted above my head. This 16-year-old kid is being taught how to tie a cable to a grid in a way that holds, but is easy to undo. A decade later, a few genders later, a few sexualities later, and a hell of a lot more experience later, I decided to take a break from theater and learn something new. Instead of staying inside black boxes, I took a friend’s advice and started volunteering on tall ships.
Learning the basics of sail was exciting for a few reasons. On-leave sailors formed technical theater as we know it, so I was hands-on learning my career’s history. I was outdoors for long stretches for the first time in a while. And I was opening up a new curiosity for two new skills…
On the first day of training, I was taught a clove hitch. After practicing it until I didn’t need to look as I formed the tie, I realized that it was also that first hitch I learned when I was a decade younger, hanging lights. I had never actually seen it, since I was taught how to do it over my head, and my boss never bothered to tell me what it was called and I was too busy to ask.
Then I needed to learn rolling hitches to attach chafe gear, a daisy chain to secure a sail, a bowline to attach flags to their halyards, square knots to reef the sail, a sheet bend to attach a piece of line to another… And all the while I was learning about tension. I was learning how to manipulate a piece of rope to create the right amount of friction so that everything, even a 2,000-pound sail or a single ton centerboard, would stay in place.
There was a lot to learn, so I took my pet rope to my other job, a sex shop that I worked in by day, and practiced. My friend and coworker there was an experienced rope top, so I would show them what I was learning and they’d practice with me, and in turn started teaching me the basics of bondage.
There was a lot to learn, so I took my pet rope to my other job, a sex shop that I worked in by day, and practiced.
When the days were slow, we’d sit there with a spreader bar to drill the basic knots on until those were perfect, and then move on to borrowing each other’s arms and torsos to practice bondage on an actual body. It was an exercise in knowledge building, skill sharing, and just being excited about expanding our horizons together.
I learned how you can use a square knot to create a single column tie and how to manipulate friction to create a futo tie and a TK. I could look at a space and realize I could connect a person to a piece of furniture with a bowline or a clove hitch. I could see an anchor bend being used to secure someone to an O-ring. My peers in kink spaces also taught me how to be aware of bodies: to make sure there’s space for two fingers between the skin and the rope, to avoid the dip between the deltoid and the triceps, and how to place someone’s wrists and ankles so that you don’t cut off their blood flow or cause pinched nerve endings.
But something I’ve never learned to do is shut the fuck up. I was open about where I worked when I was among the sailors. While sometimes people found my work uncomfortable, other times it meant I made good friends. I’m very lucky one particular person became the latter. The rigger for one of the ships and I quickly became friends, as I came in and out at weird, less busy times.
Once we were disassembling a block (a piece of hardware in a tackle system), and we were using a mallet to remove a piece from its shell. She handed me the mallet while I joked about having a lot of experience with this sort of thing. We traded the mallet back and forth hitting the thing while generally having a great afternoon chatting. Another time she showed me the quick rope cuffs she knew how to make, and then I taught her how to do it for real.
She was the first person in that world who was good at my pronouns, and who helped others learn them without me realizing it. When I started there, I was worried about being openly trans. My imagination told me that most of the people I encountered would be straight older white men – in other words, not the circle of people who are the most aware of genderqueer folks.
While that was somewhat true, it did not account for how many absolutely fantastic people I met. And this rigger helped me lower my guard to meeting new, interesting people. Since I was often there at quiet times, we’d hang out and work on projects together. She taught me new skills while we’d talk about gender and sexuality, the podcasts she listened to at work, my days at the sex shop, and a splattering of relationships, bondage and kink.
Before I started volunteering on tall ships, I’d already been kinky – I had just never really given bondage much of a thought. It was only when I started learning new rope skills that my brain went, “Hey, there’s this whole other field of kink to dive into.” And then I fell in love with the intimacy of wrapping someone’s body up in rope.
But what makes kink so engaging is you can never know everything. With every person comes new boundaries, new life circumstances, new preferences, and new skills to learn. Then there’s always someone new to learn from. It keeps your brain engaged, and your heart open to new experiences and new people.
Kink is an agreement to trust another person. That’s true whether you’re in a scene with a play partner, or just agreeing to talk about something taboo with new friends. My tightest friendships with sailors are with the ones with whom I share who I am. Most of them aren’t even particularly kinky but all of them love a good skill share. Other than intimacy, to me that is the most enjoyable thing about kink: the capacity it has to bring people together to learn new things while building trust.