Knots to Know
The Bowline: Long Live the King!
Imagine a world without zip‑ties and ratchet straps. Well, if you’re like many canoeists and kayakers, you won’t have to imagine it. You’ve lived it. The upshot? You need to know something about knots. And one of the most useful knots is also one of the oldest and most celebrated: the bowline, sometimes known as the “king of knots.” So this week, in her latest SameBoat Short, Tamia salutes the monarch.
by Tamia Nelson | January 9, 2018
OK. You’ve got a rope. Now what are you going to do with it? Tie your boat down for the trip to the put‑in? Attach a painter? Track your canoe upstream? Rig a sail? Lower your loaded kayak down a seacliff? Whatever you’ll be using your rope for, you’ll need to put a fixed loop in it sooner or later.
And how are you going to do that? One tried and tested answer is the bowline. The 1691 Sea‑Man’s Grammar and Dictionary — a posthumous reprint of John Smith’s 1627 Sea Grammar — mentions it in passing, and traveling much further back in time, a “knot … akin to the bowline” was identified in rigging recovered during the excavation of an Egyptian pharaoh’s “solar ship.” That’s quite a pedigree, and when a knot’s been in use for more than 4,500 years, it must have something going for it. Make no mistake: The bowline does. Its virtues are legion, and it received the ultimate accolade when Clifford Ashley quoted an old saw to the effect that “the divil would make a good sailor, if he could only tie a bowline and look aloft.” More prosaically, Cyrus Lawrence Day simply noted that “it s easy to tie, has a high breaking strength, and never slips or jams.” These are all signal virtues. “Easy to tie”? That’s self‑explanatory. “High breaking strength”? Every knot weakens the rope it’s tied in, but a bowline retains some 60 percent of the rope’s original strength, and this is a respectable showing. “Never slips”? That, too, should require no explanation, though it comes with an important caveat, which I’ll get to in a minute. “Never jams”? A knot is not forever. The best knots stay tied only as long as you want them to, and no longer. Then, when the time comes, they’re as easy to untie as they were to tie. The bowline is such a knot.
Is the bowline without fault? No. It’s best described as a legacy knot, better suited to hawser‑laid rope than modern kernmantel (braided core‑and‑sheath) line, and for that reason alone, climbers now prefer the figure‑eight loop for the end man’s knot. The bowline can also “capsize” and become a slip‑knot when subjected to a strong sideways load. That’s not good. But for most uses on and around small boats, when the rope in question is hawser‑laid and the pull comes on the rope proper, the bowline retains its claim to the throne. It really is the king of knots.
All right, then. I hope I’ve convinced you that the bowline is worth adding to your bag of tricks. How do you tie it?
Look at the sketch below, and keep it in front of you as you practice. Begin by forming a small overhand loop in the long (“standing”) portion of your rope. For some reason, this is known as the “cuckold’s neck.” Next, pick up the nearest end of the rope in your right hand (southpaws will use their left hands, of course). This is called the “working” end. Now thread the working end up through the cuckold’s neck, under the standing portion of the rope, and back through the neck. Then draw the knot tight by pulling on both the standing part and working end. You’re done.
Three points to remember :
1. Form the cuckold’s neck exactly as shown in the sketch (southpaws will see a mirror‑image). If you reverse it (i.e., if you make an “underhand loop”), you’ll find that when you pull it tight you’re left with a simple overhand knot, not the bowline you were hoping for. The remedy? Start over, making the cuckold’s neck properly.
2. Don’t be stingy with the rope when tying the bowline (or any other knot). In forming the loop, pull a generous length of line through the neck.
3. For critical applications — and most applications are critical! — you should tie off the working end after drawing the bowline tight. Use a simple overhand knot, tied around the adjacent portion of the loop. This is known as “stopping” the bowline, and it reduces the likelihood that it will work loose.
Not bad, eh? A strong, non‑slip loop that you can tie with little more than a twist of the wrist — and then untie just as easily. The bowline: Tie it right, and it won’t let you down. Learn it today.
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