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How to Tie a Decent Knot on a Yacht

Skipper’s Tips: Knot my Usual

When I have occasion to act as an instructor for new sailors, one of the more challenging things we do is to study knots and knot tying.

It is a boring topic and not my usual—I know—particularly when most beginners are interested in ocean voyaging and the best boat for sailing the Virgin Islands, but I kid you not when I declare that yachts and knots come hand in hand. In providing Skipper’s Tips, it is a subject that we must cover – so persevere.

“We’re not ready for the Horn right now,” I say to my students. “Let’s try tying a bowline.”

Facial reactions from the budding sailors tell me everything and as the hours drag by, it becomes clear that one of the big constraints against excellence in ‘knottery,’ is the fact that few people have any contact with real things.

When there are so many technologically advanced forms of entertainment, who these days—other than a fisherman—plays with string, rope, line – whatever you want to call it?

Bending and twisting, trying to tame an unruly length of line takes some dexterity and patience; not to mention some familiarity with the materials concerned. To many, that familiarity leaves much to be desired. Having mastered the bowline first—that most versatile of knots—we as sailing instructors often move on through the half-dozen or so basic seamen’s hitches and knots. Often I try to do this when making way under motor and autopilot—it fills the time and creates a distraction, permitting some “teaching moments” when other vessels suddenly appear in our path, or we in theirs.

The emphasis is always on the conventional knots—the round turn and two half-hitches, clove hitch, sheet bent and so forth – are you following?

But of all the knots, the one I enjoy teaching and find most useful, is the Rolling Hitch. What a simple, elegant, robust and useful arrangement of line – something true sailors will respect. I use it primarily to attach a snubber line to an anchor chain. It is much more reliable than the hook and line provided by most charter companies. It holds firmly yet unties easily and can be led in various ways so as to maximise the stretching whilst maintaining surge-absorption.


This knot or more correctly, hitch—meaning a line that is tied around another line or other object rather than around itself—is simplicity.

Just a few turns of line coiled around another line or length of chain in the direction of the cleat or winch which will take the strain, and secured by one or two half-hitches at the opposite end, the Rolling Hitch uses the friction produced by the tightly wrapped coils to grasp the line or chain – see the slideshow.

The line is then led to a winch—to haul the line up—or to a cleat to secure it.

In this way, you can add a snubber line to an anchor rode, increase the length of a line temporarily, re-direct the tension on a line in order to free an override on a winch, support a weak shroud or other structural rigging and perform many other tasks.

Seemingly, a lot to digest, but extremely useful. I like to make as many as a half-dozen turns around the line before securing the hitch with two half-hitches. Most descriptions of the Rolling Hitch show just two turns in the direction of the tension and a single half-hitch, almost a clove hitch with an extra turn at the working end.

The more turns you make, the greater the friction in the system and hence the more secure the knot. I use it to attach a small flag or standard to a backstay as well – its very adaptability makes it an unusual knot, but worthy of notice for all seafarers.

Well, I think I’ve said all I’m going to on knots for the next year…or ten.

Erin Paviour-Smith

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