You can learn a lot about the skill of a sailor by how he ties up at the dock and squares away running rigging. Are the lines neat and secure? Are the spring lines tight and bow / stern lines appropriately loose? How about the sheets? To accomplish the basic seamanship, there are a lot of knots out there, but all you have to know and know well is a handful to be worth your salt. I consider knowing how to tie a bowline, cleat hitch, clove hitch, and slip knot the most important. Combining these knots you can also make two variations of one of the handiest knots around – “the truckers hitch.” Knot tying videos shown here are courtesy the excellent Animated Knots website.
The bowline is the prototypical sailor knot. Anytime you want to make a loop, tie a bowline. It is easily undone if tied correctly though often butchered in a usable but quasi-bowlinesque version. Make sure you leave the bitter end long because bowlines settle a little before locking in position, and you do not want the bitter end to slip through the knot. Only limitation is tying a bowline when the line is under load – a common problem when securing a boat to a piling. It is best to hang a bowline around the piling and then tighten up the standing end that attaches to the boat.
The standing end of that bowline hung over a piling where the line attaches to the boat is usually a cleat. Often the dockside end is also a cleat. Believe or not you can hitch a line incorrectly to the cleat in a number of ways. The first way is hitching such that the the bitter end lies awkwardly over the knot instead of neatly tucked into it. The second way is having the standing end run away from the cleat instead of around it. While such mistakes are unlikely to lead to the knot untying, they could cause chafing or make the line harder to untie. The last tip for tying a line to a cleat nicely is to do something organised with the bitter end. You could wrap it around the cleat, make a spiral on the dock, make a fancy rope chain, or anything else. Doing something makes it easier to avoid tripping on the end and to untie the cleat when needed.
The clove hitch is a simple knot to tightly and semi-permanently secure a line. It is handy to tie up fenders to life lines, secure halyards, secure jerry jugs, or tie off a dock line to a piling. When finished with a bight, a clove hitch is easy to loosen. A clove hitch requires some kind of cylindrical point to tie off to such as a handrail, stanchion base, or piling. There are a bunch of similar knots that can be used interchangeably including what Chapman’s recommends as superior in every way – the buntline. The clove hitch is the traditional seaman version.
A very simple yet useful knot aboard is the slip knot. It is made by tightening a bight through a loop. This simple combination provides an easy stopper end for your genoa sheets, so they do not pull through the car tracks and a handy loop to use instead of a bowline if you are not carrying load. It is quick to tie and untie.
A good example of what happens when you can dance and tie the knots above at the same time are novel combinations such as the Trucker’s hitch. The Trucker’s hitch is simply a combination of a knot that makes a loop and a hitch. For instance you can tie a slip knot with a long bitter end. Then you go around a handrail, piling, stanchion, etc and back through the loop made by the slip knot. Finally you use that as a purchase to tighten up the line and hitch it off that same fixed point. Often you find yourself on a boat trying to seriously tighten up a line and without some type of purchase you will never be able to do it. The Trucker’s hitch is the easiest solution and a must know nautical knot.
So above I covered the bowline, cleat hitch, clove hitch, slip, and trucker’s hitch knots. Once you get down the basics, you get to the level where you do not just tie memorised knots but understand the reasons behind them and possibly combine them in novel situations. Another important genre of knots relate to neatly coiling and stowing lines – a topic to look into for any sailor worth their salt. Please feel free to ask questions in the comment section below about the knots above. For more information, excellent animations, and videos, I recommend Animated Knots and for you to carry around 2 meter length of line and practice tying knots all the time. If you have a favourite knot you use aboard routinely, please share.