How to Tie Nautical Knots


On a boat, knots seem to give way at the worst time. The winds are up. The seas are rising, your sloop is close hauled to slip around the breakwater to safety when your sheet parts company with your jib and you start to drift leeward into the rocks. While there are many knots used on board boats and ships, these basics will enable to you to handle 98% of what is needed for recreational boating.

  • Resolve to know these basic knots until you can tie them in the dark, with gloves on, under high seas, in the cold and the fog. Your life or that of a crew member can literally depend on whether or not you've tied these right.

  • Remember every time you put a knot in a line you weaken it, so putting extra twists and bends in the line to make a knot more secure is actually counter productive. If you learn the knots below and use them for their intended purpose, you'll be fine.

  • Know these terms. The bitter end is the end of the line that you are working to tie a knot. The bight is the bend you are putting in the line. The standing end is the long part of the line.

  • Know the difference between a bow line and a bowline. A bow line (pronounced like the bark of a dog, e.g. "bow-wow") is used to secure the front of your boat to a dock. A bowline (pronounced like an archer's favorite tool) is a knot that won't slip. It's useful for securing sheets to sails and for tying around yourself if you slip overboard. Pass the bitter endthrough the cringle on the jib clew or the piece you are trying to secure. Form an over hand loop in the standing end, laying the loop on top. Push the bitter end of the line up through the loop, around the standing end and back in the loop. Draw tightly and evenly. As the Boy Scouts teach it: Make a hole. A rabbit comes up through the hole, goes around the tree and back into the hole.

  • Make a running bowline, which will draw down tightly on anything, by taking the standing end and slipping it through the hole.

  • Use 2 half hitches for securing a dinghy to a dock or to a boat. It can be slid down the line to adjust. Wrap the line around a stanchion either once or twice. Loop the bitter end once over the standing part. Loop again and thread the bitter end between the 2 coils on the standing end and pull tightly.

  • Use a reef knot to shorten sail if the wind is overpowering a boat. On land it is known as a square knot. If it's done wrong, it's called a granny, and like her, has no strength and will readily give way. Begin by twisting 2 ends of line together as if you've started to tie your shoe, right over left. Next go left over right. It's done right if both bitter ends come out of the knot on the same side. This knot can also be used to tie together 2 different lines of the same diameter.

  • Employ a sheet bend if you are tying 2 lines together of different diameters. It resembles a bowline. Form a loop in the large line, the loop coming over the top. Push the bitter end for the smaller line up from below the loop, around the standing end of the larger line, then back in the hole. Draw tightly.

  • Use a figure eight knot to stop sheets from slipping through cars. It's 1 more step than an overhand knot. Form a loop in a line, take the bitter end back around the standing part and back in the loop. Draw down tightly.

Tips & Warnings

  • While you are learning knots, hold and tie them exactly the same way so that they become a habit.
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