8 Essential Knots Every Sailor Should Master

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content and photos contributed by The Desert Sailor

Essential yes! Important yes! Life saving – could be!  

Imagine your loved-one falls overboard, and after successfully completing the first part of your MOB (man overboard) or COB (crew over board) retrieval and your drenched, exhausted and probably freaked out friend is awake, conscious and bobbing alongside your leeward side of the boat.  As the waves are crashing your buddy against the hull, it is time to get them out and on deck. You lower the halyard down to them (usually 6+ feet on a 40 foot sailboat)  If there is no place for them to safely and securely clip the halyard shackle onto themselves or life-jacket or harness, you call down, “Wrap the line around your waist and tie a bowline knot, and I’ll winch you up! Your friend despondently responds, “How do I tie a bowline knot?”  They tie whatever knot they can, and you hope for the best as their 130-250 pounds gets hoisted over the lifelines and hopefully their homegrown knot holds….and then, hopefully, you can get them out of that knot without having to cut the halyard!


Knots vs Hitches

The perfect knot is one that holds under load and is easily untied.  The difference between a knot and a hitch?  Well, generally, a knot has to be completely untied and tied again if you need to adjust it, like an Ashley Stopper knot. A hitch can hold its shape as you loosen it and then can be adjusted and tightened up again still in its shape (Clove Hitch).  In my opinion, a bowline has properties of a hitch in some instances, but that’s another debate.

Clove Hitch on a transom bar
A clove hitch can easily be loosened and adjusted without losing its shape

The Anatomy and Choreography of a Knot: Terminology

What is the anatomy of a knot?  Think of knitters.  They have a somewhat standard way of writing knitting patterns, and knitters know what the instructions mean.  Under, over, back, through, around, knit 1, pearl 2.  I mean, knitting is just a bunch of fancy knots strung together in rows! 
Two working ends ready to do a little dance!

Start with the line (rope) itself.  There are two “ends”. The working end and the standing end.  The working end is the end that is involved in the action of knot tying.  It is the loose end, or bitter end.  The standing end is the end that is static and perhaps attached to something like say a fender, or the jib sheet end wrapped around the jib winch.  The standing end is the end that can be possibly dangling or basically the opposite end of the working end.

When directing yourself to go under or over, know which end is doing the dancing (working) and which hand it is in! Usually the standing end is where the POV (point of view) lives when referring to under and over, but a good instructor will indicate clearly which end is doing the dancing: “take the working end, loop it over the standing end and then feed it under and through itself …”  And for me, I often find myself with the working end in my right hand, as I am right handed.

A 'bite" in the line
An overhand loop & underhand loop-follow the working end. What is its path?
This cleat hitch is finished off with an underhand loop

A bite is a bend or looped line upon itself without the standing end and working end crossing.  Basically a “U” shape.  “Make a bite….” or “start with a bite….”

Overhand loop vs underhand loop

You read this from the perspective of where or what is the working end doing? Is it going under the standing end or over the standing end from your perspective. It is kind of a visual thing! Your POV (point of view) of the knot may be upside-down or reversed, so then just look at what the working end is doing.  Follow its path.

For a quick overview of knot terminology you can checkout WIKIPEDIA. Impress your friends with words like chiralty and frapping!

The Bowline Knot  (pronounce bo-lynn)

Sometimes you find the bitter-end "outside" the loop. This could get snagged on something, so best to have it "inside"
Bowline to attach jib sheets to the sail's clew

It’s Not Just A Visual Thing

The Shape of a knot.  You need to cultivate perceptiveness.  You need to have either (or both) a good visual memory of what the final knot is supposed to look like and therefore be able to compare your completed knot with the picture in your mind to determine if it is correct.  The visual comparison would never work for someone like my husband.  He is extremely visually imperceptive!  However, he is hyper human when it comes to auditory stuff!  He can tell you if someone is playing a g flat sus 7 chord or an A dominant 5 chord, but ask him if he can see that his ends finished opposite instead of on the same side of the knot (reef knot vs sheet bend) and he struggles.

Dead Cow On The Track – The Perfect Cleat Hitch

If you are more an audio learner than a visual learner,  memorize a verbal mantra to get you through the knot each time.  I actually use a combination of both A and V especially when I am learning a new knot.  I make up a little song and sing or make up other visual associations and say these out loud each time until it becomes “muscle memory.”  Until, I can do it with my eyes closed! For example: The cleat hitch should look like a bridge over a railway track. When it’s done incorrectly, you get a “dead cow” on the tracks!

a bridge over railway tracks - cleat hitch looks good
Cleat Hitch used for a halyard on the mast
Cleat Hitch on a jib sheet
"Dead Cow" on the Track - this is not a well executed Cleat Hitch (although you do see these everywhere and performed by very experienced sailors)
"Layer Cake" The strength does NOT come from the horn. This is not a preferred cleat hitch
strong base cleat hitch
For strength, wrap multiples around the base, and finish and lock on the horn.

Dressing The Knot

This means making it pretty!  And more importantly making it be in the position to do its job efficiently.  Once you know all the-loop-di-loos are going the right way, some knots need a little wiggling and jiggling and tweaking: “dressing”.  The final step is to dress your knot so it can do what it was designed to do!

The Ashley Stopper Knot usually needs a good dressing

Become a Master

I use “should master” instead of “should know”, because these knots must be at the tip of your brain (and fingers) at anytime in any situation under any condition, and as we know, on a sailboat, conditions can be stressful and decisions need to be made quickly and with confidence.  There is no time to wonder, “Hmm, what knot should I use here?”  Practice your knots in their context.  Know when to use what knots!


Mastery only comes with practice so practice and Master 1 or 2 knots at a time, then move on to more.  Be able to do them with your eyes closed!  Frontwards, backwards and upside-down.  Don’t try to get general knowledge of a bunch of knots and then be stuck with, “oh ya, how does that knot go?”  Become a MASTER of at least these 8 knots and then move on from there.


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For a full comprehensive knot encyclopedia checkout the publication “The Ashley Book of Knots” by Clifford Warren first published in 1944.  Over 3800 entries and approximately 7000 illustrations (628 pages)

What’s Your Favorite Knot? 

Mine is The Alpine Butterfly Knot! Not even in this blog or video! I will upload something soon so check back often or subscribe! 

The above content was contributed by Naomi Emmerson aka “The Desert Sailor” you can follow her online at all the usual places! @thedesertsailor on Instagram@thedesertsailorLV  on Facebook The Desert Sailor on Youtube

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