Seamanship & Navigation, May 2021

Basic knots for voyaging
Claudia Kirchberger/Unsplash

The bowline remains a workhorse knot aboard a voyaging boat — for example, attaching jib sheets. Photo by Claudia Kirchberger on Unsplash

Any sailor who ventures out on the ocean will very quickly find himself standing on deck with a length of line in his hand facing the need to fix, adjust, repair or lash some crucial item of equipment. No matter how much gadgetry is aboard, the harsh environment of the open ocean will soon reduce things to the lowest common denominators: a sailor, the sails and the rope. A sailor needs to be able to tie a variety of knots, perform a simple eye splice and be capable of intelligently lashing one item to another.

The Ashley Book of Knots is definitely not needed. This encyclopedic and inspiring reference work is treasured by ropework enthusiasts, but it is overkill for the average ocean sailor today. One only needs to be proficient with a half-dozen knots: bowline, square knot, slip knot, sheet bend, clove hitch, rolling hitch and round turn with two half hitches. Furthermore, the old-fashioned trucker’s hitch, or any variety thereof, is invaluable for lashing work.

Of all these knots, certainly the bowline is the most versatile and valuable. Aside from the square knot, it’s probably the first knot that a young sailor learns. The bowline produces a non-sliding loop or eye in the end of a rope. Such an eye has 1,000 different uses. Two of the most common are attaching sheets to sails and putting a loop in the end of a dock line.

Ideally, a sailor should be able to tie a bowline in two different ways. One is the beginner’s technique of visualizing a rabbit coming out of the hole. This method serves for simply putting a loop in the end of the line he is holding. The other valuable method is tying a bowline in the end of a line which has already been passed around an object or through a hole.

For instance, on a modem sailboat it’s very useful to be able to tie a bowline in a headsail sheet after the end of the line has been passed through the clew cringle and without turning around and facing aft along with the end of the line. When kneeling on a heaving deck attaching jib sheets to a new sail, or when attaching new or different sheets to a sail already raised, it helps to be able to tie a bowline without turning yourself around 180°. More often than not, when the need arises for a bowline in some urgent situation, you have to be able to tie it without the rabbit method. Imagine yourself leaning over the bow of a sailboat needing to attach a line to a mooring float in a strange harbor. If you choose to use a bowline for this purpose (other knots might be considered) you need to do it quickly and efficiently.

We list the square knot and slip knot here, mostly because they seem to be always with us. These really are the first two knots that most people learn. Actually, the square knot has very few functions on a boat — with the single exception of tying in nettles after a sail has been reefed. Any time you need a knot to contain a bundle with a rope tied around the bundle, the square knot and its cousin the slippery square knot should be right there at your beck and call. As for the slip knot, its best use is in lashing. When you need a fast loop that will grip the part of rope it is tied around, the slip knot can be useful.

The sheet bend is a simple and useful knot which can be put to use both at home and at sea. If you’re going to tie a sheet bend, though, it’s worth it to tie a double sheet bend. It’s a stronger and more reliable knot than the single sheet bend. The sheet bend is designed for use in bending a line to a small eye at the end of another line, or in bending the ends of two (possibly dissimilarly sized) lines together. The other way to join two ropes together would be to tie interconnected bowlines at the end of each line. This is a less streamlined and bulkier (and weaker) alternative which would involve two knots instead of one. So, stick with the double sheet bend.

As a practical application, when one needs to extend a headsail sheet or a dock line, the double sheet bend would be the ideal knot.

Next comes the clove hitch. This type of hitch has a beautiful symmetry. It is two half hitches. Around boats it is best used for securing a line temporarily to a spar or for making the end of a small line fast to a much larger line. Clove hitches are also frequently used to temporarily secure a vessel’s dock lines to a piling, or the painter of a dinghy to a bollard.

The clove hitch is popular because it will not slip when under constant strain. The second half hitch rides over the standing part of the rope being made fast. However, when subjected to great strains, it will jam — or at least be difficult to untie. And whenever a line is likely to be flailing around or subject to excessive back and forth motion, the clove hitch is not to be trusted.

A more secure type of hitch for some of the same uses, and dozens more perhaps, is the round turn with two half hitches. This knot is so simple to learn and remember and it is immensely useful. For securing the end of a line around a post, bar, bollard or through a hole of some sort, it can’t be surpassed. It is created by making a full round turn around the post, say, and then making two half hitches around the standing part of the line. A very useful cousin to this knot is the anchor bend, used in making a line fast to the ring of an anchor. It, too, starts with a full round turn around the ring, but then the end of the line is passed under the round turn in the process of making the first hitch. A second hitch may be applied in the normal way and then the last few inches of the line may be seized to the standing part for security. When you need to make a length of line fast to a kedge anchor, this would be the preferred knot.

Of all these knots, probably the most sophisticated and truly useful is the rolling hitch. This knot is most often used to make a line fast to another line already under strain in such a way that it will not slip when it, too, comes under strain. Also, when tying the end of a line back onto itself (perhaps after the line has just passed through a block or around a turning point) a well-tied rolling hitch will make sure the proper tension stays in the line.

If you wanted to attach the tail of a block and tackle to a jib sheet already under strain, the rolling hitch would be the only knot to do the job. That particular application could be very useful when one felt the need to change a fairlead block or adjust the location of a sliding car used on a jib sheet deck block. In this sense, one can see that the rolling hitch is possibly best suited for absorbing a lengthwise strain in the same direction as the line it is attached to.

To form a rolling hitch, use the end of the loose line to form two, or more, turns around the line under strain going in the direction of the strain, then come back and make a locking hitch on the end away from the strain. The result should be a knot that resembles a clove hitch but with three turns instead of two. In the event that a rolling hitch tends to slip or comes under extremely heavy strain, one can resort to another related knot, the rigger’s hitch, which is the same as a rolling hitch except that the second turn is jammed firmly over the first. If one wished to attach a smaller line to a rope anchor rode so as to take some of the strain off a capstan or windlass, a well-tied rolling hitch or rigger’s hitch would be the only knot that could do the job

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