Tying A Knot

Essential nautical knots to know

The measure of a good knot is not necessarily how easy it is to tie but to untie. (Cue memory reel of you getting your shoelaces knotted together.) From the essential to the ornamental, knots have helped sailors and cowboys alike in getting out (or into) a bind. So whether you’re on a boat or just lashing flea market finds to the roof of your car this summer, we’ve got the right knot.


The Bowline knot.

The Bowline
Practical, strong and very easy to tie, the bowline (pronounced bo-lin) is the best way to tie a loop and is used more than almost any other knot, with the exception, perhaps, of the shoelace tie. The bowline has endless uses, like attaching a line to a sail or, say, tying down an aircraft in a windstorm, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recommends. And because of its design, the bowline stays tied but can easily be undone, even if it’s frozen on the deck of a ship in the North Atlantic.

Bowline steps

The Bowline knot in four steps.

1. Hold the line in one hand letting the free end hang down and make a small loop in the line with your other hand.

2. Pass the free end through the loop from the under side.

3. Wrap the line around the standing end (long end) and pass back down through the loop.

4. Tighten the knot by pulling on free end.


Figure 8

The Figure Eight knot.

You can see how many knots got their names simply by looking at them. The figure eight resembles, yup, a figure eight. This knot has a few specific purposes that make it useful for sailors and rock climbers alike. It forms a strong loop but is also commonly used as a stopper knot to jam a loose line. For sailors that means tying the figure eight at the end of a sheet so it won’t run through a block and flap dangerously in the wind (three sheets to the wind sort of speak ).

For climbers, the knot is used to create a loop to secure a harness to a climbing rope. A figure eight is tied in the rope, then the end of the rope is fed through a harness and tied back into the figure eight, creating a double figure eight – a.k.a. a super strong knot.

Figure Eight Steps

The Figure Eight knot in four steps.

1. Pass the line over itself to form a loop.

2. Continue under and around the standing end.

3. Finish the knot by passing the free end down through the loop.

4. To make a loop, tie a double figure eight by simply loosening the knot and leading the free end back through the knot tracing the figure eight.


Clove Hitch

The Clove Hitch knot.

Hitches have a very specific use: securing a rope to a post. They range from pretty basic (tie your horse to a post) to more advanced (tie a very big ship to a dock). Either way, they’re the workhorse of knots. The Trucker’s Hitch, for example, comes in handy for everything from stretching your tent fly tight or tying your canoe down to a roof. The Clove Hitch, though not the strongest binding knot, allows for some adjustment even after it’s been tied, making it very useful in a variety of situations.

Clove Hitch steps

The Clove Hitch knot in four steps.

1. Loop the line around a post.

2. Cross the line over itself and back around the post.

3. Tuck the line under the last loop.

4. Pull tight.


Cleat Hitch

The Cleat Hitch knot.

The cleat hitch is a very specific boating knot. If you grew up on boats, chances are it’s the first one you learned, because it performs the rather crucial task of securing the boat to the dock. In my case, I was in charge of releasing the boat and tying it up again as my father was at the helm. But if you didn’t grow up playing skipper, don’t worry: This knot is easy to make – and next time you’re the guest on a boat, it will really impress the captain if you can tie it.

To note: The cleat is the metal T-shaped anchor on the dock that the boat’s dock lines are attached to.

1. Grab the dock line leading from the boat and take a turn (knot talk for wrapping the rope around something) around the base of the cleat, then bring the line over the top of the cleat.

2. Wrap the line back under the horn of the cleat opposite the first turn, then wrap it back over the first horn a second time, then back over the cleat. This makes a figure eight pattern over the cleat.

3. Now form an underhand loop and slip that loop over the horn of the cleat to secure it and pull tight.


More helpful resources:

Why Knot? by Philippe Petit
Animated Knots
Net Knots

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  1. Jamie Hascall
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 1:41 PM | Permalink

    I'm a bit puzzled by your photos of the bowline you're displaying with the How to Master Knots book. A bowline is a knot used to make a secure loop that is easy to untie. The person who tied the knot for the photo neglected the loop and makes me wonder if they've ever used said knot? I sincerely hope this is not how they are displayed in the book…

  2. Thomas Wakefield
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 4:04 PM | Permalink

    I agree with Mr. Hascall, above, regarding the first photo of the bowline. What is pictured is NEVER done. And the second picture does not give a clue as to what that loop might be made for. Then down to the cleat hitch. Why hide the rope under the horns of the cleat? Very easy to indicate the load side and the tail side. I wonder how this can be a book on Mastery? Is this book in print? I could not find it in "Books in Print."

  3. alexredgrave
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 7:36 PM | Permalink

    Hi Thomas and Jamie,

    Many thanks for your useful feedback. We've changed that top image of the bowline to show the loop. The cleat image was to give an idea of the knot but unfortunately we had to make do without a cleat (hence you not seeing sides.) There is no book – only this article! But if you have some to recommend we could include links at the end…

  4. bentrup
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 9:31 PM | Permalink

    i really enjoyed philippe petit's Why Knot? for a wide variety of fun knots, though his narrative style is a little self-indulgent.

  5. Jamie Hascall
    Posted July 16, 2014 at 9:48 AM | Permalink

    I applaud your effort to bring knots to the attention of this urban audience. I learned originally from the Boy Scout Handbook, but then from the Ashley book of Knots and Hervey Garret Smith's The Arts of the Sailor. In looking further I just found a great on-line resource at <a href="http://www.animatedknots.com/index.php?LogoImage=LogoGrog.jpg&Website =www.animatedknots.com” target=”_blank”>http://www.animatedknots.com/index.php?LogoImage=…” target=”_blank”>=www.animatedknots.com Great instructional graphics about knots and all their various uses. Enjoy!

  6. alexredgrave
    Posted July 17, 2014 at 2:15 PM | Permalink


    Funnily enough that's just the one our photographer used as a reference. (Sometimes it still takes an expert eye in addition to DIY. Live and learn – ha!) Thanks for the recommendation.


  7. alexredgrave
    Posted July 17, 2014 at 2:16 PM | Permalink

    Thanks Ben – what a find. This looks amazing!

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