If you’ve ever found yourself fumbling over a basic sailing knot in the early season, you’re not alone. As the saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” and it’s not unusual to be rusty after a landlocked winter (Floridians have no excuses). Fortunately, once a knot is committed to muscle memory, it should come back much more quickly than learning from scratch.
Staying practiced is key. I keep a piece of rope at my desk and use a knot-tying app to stay motivated and learn new rope work (decorative Carrick Bend rope coasters, anyone?). Read about my favorite knot-tying apps at the end of this post. If you prefer to learn on paper, check out the classic knot-tying tome, The Ashely Book of Knots.
If this is your first sailing season, don’t be overwhelmed by the thousands of knots you could possibly learn. You really only need to know a few of them.
Whether you’re new to sailing or just feeling a bit rusty, these are the essential sailing knots to know before stepping aboard.
WARNING: always verify your knot tying technique with a skilled instructor, especially when knot failure could cause property damage, injury, or death.
8 ESSENTIAL SAILING KNOTS
The most commonly used and versatile sailing knot is a bowline. It’s been used on ships for hundreds of years. A bowline knot creates a fixed loop at the end of a line. The great advantage of using this knot is that it can always be easily untied by turning the knot over and “breaking its back,” bending it downward
Uses: fasten sheet to a clew, put a loop in a mooring line, fasten a mooring line to a post or ring
How to: I’ll spare you the story about rabbits running around trees and show you a video.
A clove hitch is a quick and flexible knot that allows you to speedily tie, untie, and adjust – perfect for shuffling fenders when you could have sworn the dockmaster said port-side tie!
Uses: Tie fenders to just about anything: life lines, stanchion bases, toe rails.
The cleat hitch, as the name would suggest, is a sailing knot that really only has one purpose: tying a line to a cleat. Simple though it may seem, a quick walk down any marina dock would suggest that many boaters get it wrong.
Make your first turn on the opposite horn to which the line is coming in. When you go to make a locking hitch by flipping a loop away from the side of the entering line. Sound confusing? Watch this great video on how to tie the perfect cleat hitch.
Uses: Tie dock lines to cleats
TWO HALF HITCHES
It’s all in the name – one half hitch, followed by another. This is a great hitch for tying a line around a piling or some other object.
Uses: Secure a dinghy painter to a piling, secure a clove hitch and prevent fenders from slipping.
The rolling hitch is a nonslip hitch that can get you out of a serious jam. The hitch tightens down on a line or cylindrical object. It can be used to free a line from a winch drum when riding turns have rolled under. Use a spare line to tie a rolling hitch on the jammed line, tension the spare line to relieve pressure on the jammed line and remove the jam.
Uses: Free a jammed line, put a snubber on an anchor rode
SHEET BEND (WEAVER’S KNOT)
The sheet bend is considered so essential that it’s the first of 4,000 knots listed in The Ashley Book of Knots! It’s used for tying two lines together. The lines can be the same or different diameter. It’s considered more secure than a reef knot but it can loosen without tension and should ideally be used on a load-bearing line.
Uses: Tying two lines together
REEF KNOT (SQUARE KNOT)
The reef knot is a “need-to-know” sailing knot that you’ll rarely use. As the name suggests, it’s great for reefing, when you’re “binding” or tying down the slack sail to the boom.
However, it’s important to know their one great limitation: they will come loose when not under load. For this reason, a reef knot should NEVER be used to join two lines together because the knot can easily “capsize” and come undone. For joining two lines together, use a sheet bend.
Uses: Reefing, joining two ends of a single line to bind around an object
How to: “Left over right and under, right over.…” – oh wait, there’s YouTube!
FIGURE EIGHT (STOPPER KNOT)
Figure eight or stopper knots are used to prevent a line from pulling through a block or clutch. They’re a good idea to tie in the end of your halyards (unless you relish the idea of spending an afternoon trying to fish the halyard out of your mast).
Uses: Tie in the end of jib sheets, main sheets, and halyards
What’s the old saying about idle hands? Keep a piece of rope handy and download one of these knot-tying apps.
Animated Knots by Grog ($4.99).
The U.S.-based Grogono “Grog” family have a long history in Olympic sailing and their app will walk you through tying 196 different knots, everything from a basic bowline to a Brummel splice, using 3D animations and high-definition videos.
This has become my go-to app when I need a mental break between Zoom calls. Unlike watching knot-tying videos on YouTube, the app makes it possible to slowly toggle through each knot, step-by-step. I keep a list of my favorite knots, which makes it easy to quickly practice a series. Knot nerds will appreciate the informative and well-researched write-ups (in the “details” section) which describe the knot’s uses, variations, and alternatives.
Knots 3D by NyNix ($5.99)
This app has instructional animations for tying 140+ knots, organized by activity (e.g., boating, fishing, camping) and type (e.g., bends, hitches, lashings). Brush up on your basic knots (or learn something more advanced) with knot tying animations that you can slow down or speed up to suit your learning pace.
Useful Knots is free but it isn’t as intuitive as the two apps above. The knots are organized by type (loops, hitches, bends) but not by activity. The app includes a series of photos for each knot along with text instructions.
Fiona McGlynn is an award-winning boating writer who created Waterborne as a place to learn about living aboard and traveling the world by sailboat. She has written for boating magazines including BoatUS, SAIL, Cruising World, and Good Old Boat. She’s also a contributing editor at Good Old Boat and BoatUS Magazine. In 2017, Fiona and her husband completed a 3-year, 13,000-mile voyage from Vancouver to Mexico to Australia on their 35-foot sailboat.