How to tie a bowline and other sailing knots

Okay, so your parents did you the disservice of not throwing you into Scouts or Brownies as a child. Now, as a result, you don’t have a clue how to tie knots. Deep breath. There’s still time.

We’ve blogged how to tie some of the most used knots in sailing, and offered some background into this important sailing and boating skill.

Trust us, it’s knot that hard. (Sorry not sorry.)

Types of sailing knots 

Before we jump into the specifics of knot tying, lets go over the 3 main kinds of knots.

  1. Knots

Okay, the name sounds generic, but ‘knots’ are typically tied on the end of a rope or line. For example, the stopper knot or bowline knot.

  1. Bends

These are used to join 2 ropes or lines together. They tend to have the word ‘bend’ within their title. In sailor speak, to ‘bend’ = to join. An example is the sheet bend.

  1. Hitches

Hitches are used to secure a line to a piling, cleat or stanchion.

Other rope lingo

It’s also useful to know a few other terms associated with knot tying.

  • Line – A rope is known as a ‘line’. Each end of a line is referred to as either ‘standing’ or ‘working’.
  • Standing – The standing end of a line is secured to something
  • Working – The working end of a line hangs freely.
  • Bright – A loop within a line is called a ‘bright’.

Types of knots

We’re going to start with 3 of the most important sailing knots. Once you feel confident with them, feel free to move onto others. It’s important to take knot-tying one step at a time.

Eventually, you’ll have a whole repertoire of knots logged in your mind. But for now, start with the most used ones, and then grow your knowledge from there.

  1. Bowline

Seafarers have used the bowline for 500 years at least. This is because it has many applications, and as you’d expect, is very effective.

As the name suggests, the bowline is a method of making the end of a line into a loop. It’s useful because you can then tie it around fixed objects, like a post.

You can also use a bowline to fasten the halyard to the sail on small boats. When the bowline knot is put under pressure, it tightens, which means it’s also great for hanging hammocks. (This also means it is really hard to untie when holding a weight.)

How to tie a Bowline:

  • Make a loop at the end of the line.
  • Bring the end of the line through the loop.
  • Take the line around the standing end, then back through the smaller loop.
  • Hold the end and pull tight on the knot.
  • A large loop should now form.
  • Well done, you’ve just made a bowline knot!

If you need a visual cue (which really does help) check out this instructional YouTube video on how to tie a bowline.


  1. Clove Hitch

The clove hitch slots into the top 3 most useful knots for sailors because it is not only fast to tie and untie, but also holds almost as effectively as the bowline.

It’s most common use on sailboats is hanging fenders over the side of a vessel as it comes into dock. Here how it’s done.

How to tie a clove hitch:

  • Wrap the end of your line around the object you want to attach it to (for example, a post).
  • Cross it over itself, then wrap the line around the object or post a second time.
  • Make sure the final wrap is a little looser than the one before, so you can slip in the end and then pull it tight. This is called ‘locking’ your knot.
  • Give the end a couple of tugs to ensure it is secure.
  • Congratulations! Your first clove hitch is mastered!

Here’s a YouTube video that shows how to tie a clove hitch, just in case you need to follow visual prompts.

  1. Cleat Hitch

If you want to really make yourself useful on a boat, get this knot under your belt. As you probably guessed, it is used to ‘make the line fast to a cleat’.

This means the cleat hitch is used when docking, rigging a preventer or even when towing a dinghy. Here’s what you need to now.

How to tie a cleat hitch:

  • Wrap the line around the base of your cleat.
  • Start the wrap on the farthest edge from where the line starts.
  • On the cleat, weave a figure 8.
  • If you think the line is going to be under significant pressure, and if the cleat is large enough, repeat the figure 8 two to three times.
  • Lock the knot by adding a hitch to your last turn.
  • This is done by creating a loop underneath with the tail end of the line, then hooking it around the cleat.
  • Pull the end tight.
  • Make sure the tail end of the line is opposite to where the line originates.

This YouTube video will help you learn faster!

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Click here to get started. For more advanced knot tying, head to this great article by Sail Magazine.