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The single most important sailing knot to learn, the bowline

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What is the issue?
Sailing is a world of knots, bends, hitches, loops etc each targeted at specific roles. There are far too many to learn them all, unless you take pleasure in the art, and for a starter trying to get to grips with rope handling can be daunting.

Why address this?
Having the ability to belay a line in a completely reliable yet easy to undo fashion is a critical sailing skill, if not one for life. There bowline or ‘standing bowline’ is the one single multipurpose knot that is versatile and reliable enough to deal with almost any circumstance. Sometimes referred as the King of the knots because of its importance, it is the one knot you need to know and is the first knot you should learn.

How to address this?
The bowline is perhaps the best knot in the world and most commonly used for forming a fixed loop, large or small at the end of a line. An ancient and simple knot that is used to form a fixed loop at the end of a rope has the virtues of being both easy to tie and untie. Most importantly, it is easy to untie after being subjected to a load. Tried and tested over centuries, this knot is reliable, strong and stable. It is also technically superior to other knots as it imposes less strain on the rope. A bowline reduces rope strength by 42%, compared to the 50% for a sheet bend or 55% for a reef knot.

The essential bowline being taught
Photo: Chris Brooks via CC BY 2.0

It is the firm favourite of sailors, climbers and scouts and can be applied to almost any purpose. Although perplexing at first, the knot can be made quickly and automatically once you have acquired the knack. It is often taught to children with the rhyme: 'Up through the rabbit hole, round the big tree; down through the rabbit hole and off goes he.

Allow for the size of the loop and the knot itself and form a small loop in the line. Then bring the bitter end up to and through the eye from the underside. In the rhyme Up through the rabbit hole.

Pull the end through, then round the standing line, and then back through the loop passing underneath and trapping in place the standing line. In the rhyme round the big tree.

Once the bitter end is out through the loop, as above, work the slack out and the knot is finished. In the rhyme down through the rabbit hole and off goes he If it falls apart you have not done it correctly, just try again.

The Standing Bowline
Photo: Markus Bärlocher

Although generally considered a reliable knot, the bowline is not perfect. Its main deficiencies are a tendency to work loose when not under load, to slip when pulled sideways i.e the bight portion of the knot, and is totally unreliable when used underwater.

The bowline was our number one knot during our circumnavigation. I practised before setting off so that I could do it with my eyes shut and there was many a night I was thankful of that. I completely recommend investing the time it takes to get confident with this knot. Having the ability to create a totally secure knot in few seconds is very reassuring.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession

The bowline may appear daunting at first but it is easily mastered
Photo: eOceanic thanks U.S. Naval Forces Central Command U.S. Fifth Fleet via CC
BY 2.0

How to Tie Bowline

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