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10 Essential Knots for a Sailor

Not too long ago, there was a discussion on the Open Boat Yahoo group about what members considered their 10 essential knots when sailing.

Opinions varied but lists of important knots were very similar. I guess needs are similar.

The following knots are my essential knots and they have served me well enough while on the boats. Click on the name and see how the knots are tied.

Knots are often asked to perform in situations where failure could be life threatening or expensive. Learn how to tie the knots properly and where they can be safely used.

There are many books about Knots. Here are a few


Probably the first knot that you learn when you start sailing. A good all round useful knot. Not only is it very useful but YOU HAVE TO KNOW HOW TO TIE A BOWLINE or you loose all credibility as a sailor!

The double bowline is used if you need a stronger knot and if you need to tie it on a line and don't have access to the ends try a Bowline on the Bight.

My father taught me how to tie a bowline with the story of the otter that comes out of the pond, goes around the tree and then goes back in the water. I've heard versions with rabbits and other animals. I guess it depends where you are.

Figure of Eight Knot

You need a reliable stopper knot to keep the end of lines from coming out of blocks and other sailboat accessories and the figure of eight knot works. I've recently started using the double overhand knot because it is not as likely to come undone.

I think the size and kind of line you have has an effect on what holds best, just experiment.

A misbehaving Figure of Eight got me in trouble this summer. My jib sheet came undone and left me scrambling on the deck to capture it as it flailed around on my Tanzer sailboat in 20 knot gusts.

Round Turn and Two Half Hitches

A good general knot to use for tying up at the dock or attaching bumpers on the side of the boat. It's easy and fast and I can remember how to make it! You can make it more permanent if you whip the end to the main line to fasten the end.

Reef Knot

The reef knot should only be used when it is not serious if the knot comes undone. I use it when Reefing my Skerry Sail, but it's not much good except for that. You can't trust it for other things because if you pull on one end and not the other the knot slips and stops holding. Even worse if you don't tie the second loop correctly you end up with a Granny Knot and that is no good at all.

Sheet Bend

The Sheet bend is stellar when it comes to tying 2 ropes together. Weavers used a variation of this knot but it gets called a weavers knot.

Highwayman's Hitch

The Highwayman's hitch is useful when you want to cast off by just pulling on the loose end of the line. This unties the knot and frees the line, and away you go.

The story goes that it was used by Highwaymen who had to untie their horses quickly to get away.

I've seen this knot used while towing, to allow the towing line to be quickly released in case of trouble.

I also use it when getting my dinghy ready at the dock. I keep the end in the boat and when I'm ready to cast off I just pull on the line and it comes away.

This is not a reliable knot and wave action pulling and slacking the knot, or an impatient horse, will cause the knot to gradually come undone. The Highway man's knot is only useful for short periods when someone is watching.

Rolling Hitch

The rolling hitch ties on to another line and it can be used to pull some slack in it to release a bind in a block or winch. I use it to tidy up the boat when I'm tightening up the lines so they don't rattle around when the boat is on its mooring.

Cleat Hitch

I use this knot all the time when I go sailing, either to tie the boat to a dock or mooring, or to tie the tender to the boat, or to secure the halyards to the mast. One of my absolute essential knots.

It's amazing how many sailors don't know how to cleat a line properly.

I use it to secure my mooring line to the boat and in that case I keep a small line and tie the end of the mooring line down so that the sometimes fierce waves don't work the knot loose. I've never had a failure and I don't think the second line is necessary but there is not enough space on the cleat for a second loop and I'm cautious.

Constrictor Knot

This knot never lets go. That's why it's one of my essential knots. You need a really solid reliable knot like that. I use one on the boom to attach the little block for the main sheet. I also have a constrictor knot holding the upper spar of the balanced lug on my apple pie dinghy rig.

At the end of the season I cut the knot off.

Anchor Bend

The anchor bend holds better than the half turn and two half hitches and keeps an anchor line tied to the chain.

The anchor bend holds well but the line might break at the knot position if you don't keep an eye on it and occasionally tie it in another spot that is not worn. It's better to work a grommet in the line and use a cleat to tie to the chain if you need a more permanent fastening.

If you handle lines you will need to know this too

You also need to know two other things about ropes. How to whip the end so it does not fray, and how to coil the rope end so it's not tangled when you come to use it. In a pinch you can use a constrictor knot to bind the end of a rope and it will hold, but it's not as pretty as a proper binding.

There is an imp on my boat and as soon as he sees a loose rope he either tangles it or puts it around my foot. He's really good at loosening the ends of the halyard so that when the sail comes down the (tangled) end goes up and out of reach.

Some rope materials are notorious for not wanting to stay knotted. Polypropylene is particularly bad.

Article in All about knots on strong hitches for slippery and difficult rope. Also discusses what makes a knot strong.
email me if you find mistakes, I'll fix them and we'll all benefit: Christine