Maritime community mourns rigging legend

Posted 6/11/20

On a still day at the Point Hudson Marina, among the echoing seagull cries and the soft sound of water lapping against boat hulls, it was not unusual to hear the booming laughter of master rigger Brion Toss.

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Maritime community mourns rigging legend


On a still day at the Point Hudson Marina, among the echoing seagull cries and the soft sound of water lapping against boat hulls, it was not unusual to hear the booming laughter of master rigger Brion Toss.

It would ring out over the horizon, and the best place to look for the origin of the jolly sound was up toward the sky.

Toss, a world-renowned master rigger, author, knot expert, and lover of wooden boats, died June 6 at the age of 69.

Toss spent much of his life aloft, rigging everything from daysailers to massive square riggers.

When he wasn’t aloft, Toss was in Port Townsend teaching, writing, philosophizing, and sharing hearty laughs with friends, family, and anyone who stopped by his rigging shop, Brion Toss Yacht Riggers, in the historic Point Hudson Marina.

He leaves behind his wife, Christian Gruye, and his kids, as well as many friends in Port Townsend.

“What I’m going to miss most is his melodious booming laughter that would come up through the floorboards into the sail loft, or echo across the harbor when he was up a mast,” said sailmaker Carol Hasse, a longtime friend and colleague of Toss.

Toss’ career was born out of an obsession with knots more than 40 years ago.

Born in Kentucky and raised in Seattle, Toss fell into a knot-tying rabbit hole when someone handed him a copy of “The Encyclopedia of Knots and Fancy Ropework.”

In a 2015 interview, Toss recalled becoming obsessed with knots until he finally asked himself, “What can you do with these things?”

That led him to rigging.

At the first Wooden Boat Festival, Toss met Nick Benton. Toss said Benton taught him the many techniques of rigging, as well as how to think like a rigger.

He soon met Emiliano Marino, who now owns the Artful Sailor in Port Townsend. The two rented a loft upstairs at Anacortes City Hall where Marino made sails and Toss made rigging.

The two promised each other they would write books on their respective careers.

In 1984, Toss published “The Rigger’s Apprentice,” followed by Marino’s “The Sailmaker’s Apprentice.”

The book is now considered the authoritative text on rigging and covers everything from a sailor’s most-needed knots, to maintaining rigs, turning tail splices, and wire eyesplices.

“He was always striving to both innovate and carry the traditional craft forward,” Hasse said. “He certainly has an international renown for codifying, through writing and teaching age-old practices.”

Toss traveled the world, rigging all types of ships and passing on his extensive knowledge in workshops and classes.

“He brought such levity and creativity to his talks,” Hasse said. “He would get people involved. Someone would stand and be the mast, and another person would be the shroud. It was always something people could engage with.”

He valued self-sufficiency in a sailor, and taught skills necessary for sailors who want to be self-reliant on the water.

“He was the consummate teacher,” said Kaci Cronkhite, former director of the Wooden Boat Festival, who met Toss through studying his knot-tying book. “Everything he did, it was not just a business, it was a philosophy of life and rigging tied together.”

Beyond that, Toss acted as an instructor to the U.S. Coast Guard, among other organizations.

Toss was always trying to  design the ideal rig to make any boat sail better, faster and safer.

At the 2019 Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend, Toss was inducted into the Maritime Hall of Fame for his work carrying forward the traditional art of rigging.

In his acceptance speech, he called for unity among the community.

“He was saying, as rigging splices things together, our action, our words, our energy ,splices us together,” Cronkhite said.

In September 2017, Toss released a collection of life stories about rigging ships in an e-book titled, “Falling.”

The book features a collection of cautionary tales about working aloft, as Toss reflected on his lifetime of rigging. In the stories, Toss’s jovial sense of humor is balanced with a reverence for his work and the power of gravity.

“Life is unutterably precious, unbearably fragile, but it becomes flimsy and shallow if your primary aim is to preserve it,” he wrote in the final chapter of “Falling.” “Risk it. If you huddle in a safe space, you might live longer, but you will not be fulfilled. Risk your life, at some point, to some extent. Do it with enough training and gear that your chances of survival are excellent. But do something that will let you know how close Death is, and how amazing Life is.”

A celebration of Toss’ life is being planned for a future date. His family has created a Facebook page called Brion Toss Life Memories so friends and community members can share stories, photos, videos and memories of his life.


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