Hannah Cotterell
Written by
Hannah Cotterell

Essential sailing knots for sailors

Posted on Monday, Jul 15, 2019 | reading time: 5 min

Knots every sailor should know

essential sailing knots for sailors

Whether you’re a seasoned sailor or just out for the day, there are few standard boating knots everyone should know. The good news is, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t learn how to tie knots at school, anyone can learn. The key is to get a piece of rope, practice beforehand and most importantly, know what each knot is used for.

Types of sailing 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.

Boating knots for sailors

The Bowline

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.

essential sailing knots for sailors

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.

The Sheet bend

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.

how to tie a sheet bend

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.

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

how to tie a reef knot

Stopper knot

This is a type of jamming knot and is one of the more attractive in 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

Figure of Eight

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.

how to tie a figure of eight

Clove hitch

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

how to tie a clove hitch

Round turn and two half hitches

how to tie two half hitches

The Cleat Hitch

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.

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.

how to tie a cleat hitch

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Learn more about sailing knots.

There’s lots of free online resources to practice your knot tying, the key is practice often and practice in application, get out on a boat and start tying! Here’s some useful YouTube links on how to tie each of the above knots.

How to tie a bowline

How to tie a sheet bend

How to tie a reef knot

How to tie a figure of eight

How to tie a clove hitch

How to tie two half hitches

How to tie off a cleat