sailing knots you should know

Our Guide to Essential Boat Knots for Sailing

Learn how to tie the most important boat knots with our step by step tutorial

Boat knots every mariner should know

Whether you’re a seasoned sailor or just out for the day on a motorboat, there are few standard boating knots everyone should know. The good news is, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t learn tying boat knots at school, it's not too late to start. The key is to get a piece of rope, practice beforehand and most importantly, know what each boat knot is used for.

Understanding the different types of boating knots

There are a few different terms you might hear being thrown around on a boat, such as KNOT, HITCH, and BEND.

The standard “knot,” is self-tightening and tied at the end of a rope, such as a bowline. Then we have the “hitch” which is used to secure a rope to something else, such as a rope that ties a fender to a stanchion, and last but not least we have the “bend” which connects two ropes together, such as a sheet bend for example.

The main theme behind our conversation today has been around unravelling some of the mystique behind trips out into the maritime and coastal environment and the more tools that people are able to pick up and use to help them understand that environment the better. Tools like the savvy navvy app, and the information provided through the application is unbelievably useful to help people on that journey.

Guy Addington, RNLI

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The Best Boating Knots to Learn

The Bowline Knot

If you only know one knot, make it this one. A bowline is one of the most common knots used by sailors worldwide and is particularly useful, as it’s easy to tie and untie, even after being put under load.

Bowline’s create loops at the end of the rope, for example, to attach to a dock line or to attach a jib sheet to a clew.

How to tie a bowline

There’s a common story amongst sailors to help people remember how to tie a bowline. Think of the end of the rope as a rabbit and the longer, static, part of the rope as a tree. Make a loop at the bottom of the rope, which makes a “rabbit hole,” then the story goes:

“Up through the rabbit hole, round the big tree; down through the rabbit hole and off goes he.”

It’s a good idea to practice tying a bowline on its own and tying it around something, many people practice at home and then get to the boat to find they’re not sure how to tie a bowline to something.

The Slip Knot

This “stopper” knot is extremely useful as it can be fastened in an instant and released with a simple pull of the tail end of the rope. This can be very handy for tying the mainsail to the boom or a foresail to the stanchions on the deck. Then when you’re ready to hoist the slip knot can be quickly undone.

How to tie a slip knot

Make a single loop by doubling the line back onto itself.

Run the tag end back toward the loop and then lay over the doubled lines.

Then make one or two turns with the tag end around doubled lines and through the new loop created. Easy! 

The Sheet bend Knot

Historically known as the Weaver’s knot, the sheet bend is useful when you need to join two lines of different thickness or structure together.

Like the bowline, the sheet bend is very easy to tie, however it can work itself loose when not under load, so it may be advisable to put an extra turn in the smaller end, otherwise known as a double sheet bend.

How to tie a sheet bend

To tie a sheet bend, make a “U” shaped loop with one rope.

Then take the other rope and put it up through the rabbit hole and around the back of the other rope from right to left 

Then finally bring it back down and through the leading line.

The Reef knot

The reef knot, also known as the “square knot,” is a securing knot, used to tie a rope around an object, such as a mainsail when it’s sitting on the boom, or a foresail, to secure it to the deck around the stanchions. 

How to tie a reef knot

A common mnemonic to tie this knot is, “right over left; left over right,” remember the working ends of each piece of the rope must both be either on the top or both on the bottom.

The Stopper knot

This is a type of jamming knot and is one of the more attractive knots in terms of appearance. 

The stopper knot is handy for stopping a rope from running through a block, clutch or other small passage. This knot will jam when under strain but may also be difficult to undo again, which may require the rope to be cut.

How to tie a stopper knot

Start by making a small loop at the end of a line by running the tag end over the standing line.

Then tie an overhand knot around the standing line.

Next pull the overhand knot tight and before feeding the tag end through the noose (loop) end.

Now pull the tag end all the way through and slide the knot down tight.

Finally, pull both ends tight.

The Figure of Eight Knot

Another type of jamming knot is the figure of eight. Similar to the stopper knot the figure of eight will also jam under load and prevent a rope from running through a block or jammer. Unlike the stopper, the figure of eight is easier to undo after being under load so you most likely won’t have to cut the line.

How to tie a Figure of Eight 

Start by tying a single eight in the rope roughly two feet from the end. Then pass the free end through any tie-in point you choose.

Now retrace the original eight with the free end leaving a loop at the bottom according to your preferred size.

Finally, pull all four strands of rope to tighten the knot.

The Clove Hitch Knot

Sometimes referred to as a double hitch this is one of the most useful knots for sailors. 

It is often used when the running length of the rope needs to be easily adjustable, such as for tying fenders to the stanchion. The clove hitch can slip when loaded, with certain types of more “slippery” rope, in which case a round turn and two half hitches might be more applicable. 

How to tie a Clove Hitch

Wrap the end of the rope halfway around the pole or support

Then cross the sheet over itself and around the pole once more. 

Finally, slip the working end of the rope under your last wrap and pull tight. 

The Cleat Hitch Knot

Cleats are used to secure a rope from the boat to the dock and vice-versa. Anywhere you go with a boat you will need to use cleats and as such this is an essential hitch.

How to tie a Cleat Hitch

To start, take one turn round the base of the cleat with the rope 

Then wrap the rope in a figure-of-eight motion from one horn to the other. 

On the final turn pass the end of the rope underneath itself and pull tight, this will secure it in place.

Master Sailing Knots - Practise, Practise, Practise.

There are lots of free online resources to practice your knot tying, the key is to practice often and practice through application, get out on a boat and start tying! We’ve linked some of our favourite YouTube clips above but would also recommend spending some time looking at different videos until you find the one that clicks with you. You’ll be a pro in no time! 

For how to use some of these knots why not read this article - how to tie a boat to the dock

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