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Knots for Boating

I didn't really learn how to tie knots until I had paddled and power-boated for years, then we became proud slaves of a sailboat. I urge any boater to learn at least the basics. You will use these knots every time you go boating - because a properly tied knot does not slip and is easy to untie!

I do not include how to tie knots as other do it better - except for the quick Bowline (video below). Someone showed me how to tie this years ago and I'm forever grateful. A "round turn and 2 half hitches" is not usually considered important for marine use but I once had to fasten a line with one hand to a loose dinghy in large waves, and this was the only knot I could manage. So here are the basic knots in order of learning (in my opinion). You can learn them all in 20 minutes but practice often until they are automatic. You won't be sorry.

  1. Reef (Square) Knot - joins lines (you learned this as a kid, right?)
  2. Figure eight knot - stops the end of a line from running through a fitting
  3. Bowline (pronounced BO-lin)- King of knots has many uses (see below)
  4. Clove Hitch - tie to a post or ring (can slip - see #3)
  5. Sheet Bend - joins lines of different thickness (double bowline is better)
  6. Rolling Hitch - tie to a post, ring or another line (secure)
  7. Round Turn and Two Half Hitches - tie to a post/ring
  8. Cleat hitch - secure a boat to a cleat.

The Highwayman's Knot (Mooring Hitch) is one of my favorite knots. It is used to temporarily tie the boat to a ring on shore with the end of the line led back to the boat - a sharp tug on the line releases the knot (hopefully). It allowed us to tie up our stern ladder so it could be released by a person in the water! Could save your life if you fall overboard and your ladder can be dropped into the water this way.

How to tie a Bowline, the King of Knots

This knot creates a loop at the end of a line - it's simple, reliable, and useful. When properly tightened, it is strong yet easily untied. The rope's end can be passed through a ring, around a spar, or through a fitting. It can make a quick loop to throw over a bollard or shore cleat. Or even a make-shift safety harness, as the loop stays the same size under tension. If you don't know how to tie a sheet bend to attach two lines together, just tie a bowline at the end of each line passing through each other.

The usual method of remembering how to tie a bowline is to form a loop, then "The rabbit goes up the hole, around the tree and back down the hole again". But a much fastest method is to lay the end of the rope over the standing part and turn your wrist to make the loop. Hold the loop with one hand while passing the end behind the standing part and down through the loop. Once you've practiced this method, it can be used to tie a loop around your chest as a make-shift harness - even when a line is thrown to you in the water!

Saskatoon Knot - the worst Knot

This knot forms as if by magic whenever you do not stow or coil rope carefully. If you want your own special knot, this is it. But I have to warn you I did not name this knot. I grew up in Saskatchewan, and realize there are fewer boats there than other provinces endowed with thousands of lakes and rivers. Still, I laughed when I saw this diagram.

- "Sailing with Sail RA' Ottawa, Ont. 1975

More Knots:

Rope or Line?

When a rope is used on a boat for a particular purpose, it is called a line. Many lines have special names. Sailboats have the same lines used by powerboats (dock lines, anchor lines, flag halyards), but they also use lines for sailing, such as halyards, running rigging, topping lifts, furling lines, sheets, and more.

Choosing the type of line for different purposes:


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