Pirates of America Nautical Knots and Ropes


The old square-riggers of the golden age of sail were all about the knots: they had miles of rope and used scores of knots to control their canvas power plants. Boats today use far fewer lines and knots, but a knowledgeable mariner can still look at a boat and quickly tell the owner's level of seamanship by observing the lines. Are they neatly coiled and properly knotted, or tangled in a landlubber’s snarl?

Your lines tell a lot about you, and knowing how to correctly handle rope and tie knots is far from a dead art. The Ashley Book of Knots, the bible of the knot-tier, contains more than 3,500 knots, and more have been developed since it was published in 1944. Luckily, most mariners can get by with far fewer: we count six-and-a-half as essential. With these knots you can do just about anything you need to do on a boat that involves rope. We'll explain each in detail, but first a few basics.

Tie And Untie

Most mariner’s knots have three characteristics: they are easy to tie, do a specific job well and are easy to untie. This last is very important: you do not want to break fingernails or have to resort to a knife.

In any marine store, you will find two kinds of rope: three-strand twisted, called laid line, and various types of braided rope. Braided rope is the kind you see most often today. The knots below were originally developed in laid line, but will work just fine in any type.

Like everything else on a boat, knotting has its own language. The words needed are few and simple, but knowing the proper terms will make description much easier. The first bits of vocabulary you need to understand are that cordage in the coil is rope, and when it is cut and put to use, the piece is called a line.

With any knot, the part you manipulate is the working part, the rest of the rope is the standing part. A bight is a bend in the rope that does not cross over the standing part —basically a U shape. If the rope makes a complete circle, crossing the standing part, it is a turn. If the line crosses over the standing part, I call it an “overhand turn”; if it crosses under, it is an “underhand turn.” “Breaking its back” means easily untying a knot by pulling the last turn down along the standing part. It is an important characteristic of a knot, and is true of several of the knots we'll describe here.

Figure 8 Knot #1

This is your basic stopper knot, which is a knot that prevents a line from running out of a block or fairlead. This is the knot you see at the end of sheets and anything else in danger of getting away. It is made very simply by putting an overhand turn near the end of the line and then, rather than passing the end up through the turn as in an overhand knot, continue around the standing part and pass the end down through the turn. If it looks like a number 8, you have made it right. Push it together to form a lump at the end of the line.

Overhand Knot #2

While you could achieve almost the same effect with an overhand knot, that knot becomes extremely difficult to untie once it is jammed tight. The Figure-8 knot can be easily untied by simply breaking its back.


This is the premier loop knot. It forms a loop in the end of the rope that will not slip. No matter how tight it is pulled, it can be untied easily by breaking its back. This knot is recommended for putting a mooring line onto a piling. There are a number of variations and specialized versions of the bowline, but we stuck to the most common.

To tie it, stretch out a section of the end of the rope as big as the loop you want to make, plus a little extra to make the knot. On the standing part, make an overhand turn. Pass the end of the rope up through the turn, around behind the standing part, and back down through the turn. Hold the end and the part next to it in one hand and the standing part in the other hand, and pull the knot together. That is the basic way to tie the knot.

Experienced knot tiers usually will take the end in the right hand and the standing part in the left hand. Cross the end over the standing part from right to left and grasp the standing part between your right thumb and forefinger. Now rotate your right hand to bring the end down through the loop and back up again in such a way as to throw a turn into the standing part with the end sticking through it. Now continue as before, taking the end around the back of the standing part and down through the turn to complete the knot.

Reef Knot

The landsman calls this a “square knot” — same knot, different name. As the sailor’s name suggests, this is a very good knot to tie around something. It will hold well as long as the tension is equal on both legs, and there is some pressure from underneath. This knot is not recommended to tie - sailors would say bend - two ropes together for a straight pull; it can be unreliable in that situation.

You basically learned this knot when you learned to tie your shoes; but the reef knot is not made with bows (then it would be a “slipped reef knot”). The basic rule is: right over left and then left over right (or vice versa). If it is done right, the ends should lie along the standing parts. If you go over and under (as opposed to over and over), you end up with the dreaded Granny knot, as indicated by the ends sticking out crosswise from the standing parts. The Granny knot is extremely difficult to untie once pulled tight.

Sheet Bend

An excellent knot for attaching two ropes together for a straight line pull is the sheet bend. The knot is formed by making a bight in one rope, then passing the end of the second rope up through the bight from beneath. Pull enough slack in the second rope to pass around and beneath the bight. Pull the end across the top of the bight and under itself where it comes up through the bight. Pull the two standing parts to tighten. This knot can be untied by breaking its back. You can increase the security of this knot by passing the working part twice around the bight. In that case it becomes a “double sheet bend.” The very same knot can be tied in an already existing loop, where it is called a “becket bend.”

Round Turn With Two Half Hitches

This is one of the most basic and reliable hitches, a term used loosely to refer to a knot that attaches a rope to some object. It is used when the pull will come at roughly right angles to whatever it is tied to.

Take a round turn around the object, meaning wrap the rope completely around it. The half-hitches are taken around the standing part as follows: take the working end around the standing part and bring the end out on the side nearer the object—that is your first half-hitch. Tie in a second half-hitch on the standing part on the side away from the object. Snug the half-hitches together and the knot is finished.

Rolling Hitch

This is a very useful knot when attaching a rope to another rope or similar object, particularly if the strain is going to come in line with the object to which the rope is tied. The great advantage of this knot is that when the strain is off, the knot can be slid along whatever it is tied to, and when the strain comes on it, the knot will hold. Thus it is very useful for hanging fenders, because you can easily adjust the height of the fender.

Pass the end of the rope around the object you are tying it to (which may be its own standing part), twice on the side where the strain will come. Then add a half-hitch on the side of the knot away from the strain. Make sure everything is snug. You can slide the knot up or down the object as long as there is minimal strain on the rope that you made the knot in.

Belaying: The Half Knot

Belaying is the act of making a rope fast to an object, usually a cleat or belaying pin. It is arguable whether it is technically a knot at all, thus the “half” in our explanation above. But we included it because it is a basic rope skill for any mariner. Like all other marlinespike work, it depends on friction to hold. And, like everything else, there is one right way and many wrong ways to do it.

In this example, we are belaying to a cleat. The line should ideally approach the cleat at an angle (preferably about 15°), although that is not always possible. Beginning at the end of the cleat that is farther from the strain, take a round turn around the base of the cleat, so that the line goes around the other end of the cleat from the same side it exits the first end. This ensures that the working part of the line will be farther away from the standing part and thus minimizes the possibility of a jam-up. This is most important when the line approaches the cleat from a shallow angle. Now put in several figure-8 turns. You will always go around the horns of the cleat from the side opposite the standing part.

Take a number of turns, depending on how heavy the strain is on the line and how much space you have on the cleat. Normally, you will finish with a half-hitch by grasping the working part with your other hand and putting a twist in it before you put it on the cleat. Done correctly, the end of the line should pass under the last turn and lie alongside the last crossing in the middle of the cleat. If it is a line that you may need to cast off quickly, simply eliminate the final half-hitch.