How to Tie Basic Sailing Knots

If you’re learning to sail, or about to undertake a bareboat, skippered or flotilla sailing charter, one of the first steps is to learn your basic sailing knots. Mastering small skills like this is key to becoming a great sailor.

With dozens of knots used for a variety of purposes all across a yacht, however, figuring out which ones you need can be overwhelming – here are the five basic sailing knots that we think are foundational for any sailor, whether they have no experience or are well-versed with charting a yacht.

Get a synthetic rope – the kind you would use on a yacht – and start practising these basic sailing knots to develop the muscle memory you’ll need once you’re sailing. Once you can recall each easily, you’ll be invaluable on your next sailing holiday.

What you need to know about basic knots for sailing

Before we get into it, here are some things to keep in mind:

1) Different knots serve different purposes. Whether it’s securing lines, attaching objects, adjusting sail rigging, or creating loops for quick release, you’ll find quickly enough that sailing knots are not created equal. We will detail how each of these basic sailing knots is used as we continue.

2) There are three main types of “knots”. True knots work independently – they are tied with one rope and not wrapped around anything. When we refer to basic sailing knots, this also includes bends, which join two lines together, and hitches, which are used to secure a line to a cleat, piling or stanchion. Understanding the key differences between these terms will make learning your basic sailing knots far easier.

3) The terminology doesn’t stop there. Remember going forward that the ends of a line are referred to as either “working” or “standing.” The working end is free, while the standing end is secured to something. A loop formed in a line is known as a bight. Remember all this as we explain how to tie basic sailing knots.

Now, here are five essential basic sailing knots and how to tie them:  

The Figure 8 Knot

While sailing, all lines on the yacht need to have a stopper knot at the end to ensure they do not run through the rigging or are “skied”. For example, if there is no stopper knot at the end of your main halyard, as the sail comes down, the line can be pulled through the mast—causing a major “re-run” headache. 

This is also a safety measure because if you were to tack without a stopper knot in your jib sheet, it would run out of the blocks, causing a crew member to have to re-run the line quickly. A figure of 8 knot is an example of a basic sailing knot that acts as a stopper at the end of a line.

Step 1 – Make an overhand loop at the end of your line by crossing the tail end over the sheet.

Step 2 – Then proceed to take the tail over the line again and through the loop, creating a figure 8.

Step 3 – Pull the knot tight to ensure it will not slip.

The Bowline

Perhaps the most useful and most versatile of all the basic knots for sailing is the Bowline. This knot is easy to tie, can support a tremendous amount of weight, and even after holding a heavy load, is easily undone. The Bowline is used when a fixed loop Is required at the end of a line.
How do you create this useful, basic sailing knot ahead of your sailing charter in the Caribbean, Mediterranean or beyond?

Step 1 – Create an overhand loop in the line.

Step 2 – Take the sail end of the line through the loop.

Step 3 – Wrap the line around the standing portion.

Step 4 – Go through the loop in the opposite direction the same way you did the first time.

Step 5 – Pull the knot tight to secure.

Are you planning a family charter and want everyone to get involved with sailing? All the family can use this common analogy to remember how to tie the basic sailing knot:

The rabbit comes out of the hole, goes around the back of the tree, and then jumps back into the hole.” If you remember that the “rabbit” is the working end of the line, this could be useful.

The Square Knot

Next on our list of the most important basic sailing knots to learn before your first yacht charter is the Square Knot. The square or “reef knot”, is most useful when you need to connect two lines or a line to itself. It is one of the first knots taught to young sailors and beginners due to its incredibly useful nature.

Step 1 – Take two ends of either the same line or two different lines.

Step 2 – Cross the right line over the left and make an overhand knot.

Step 3 – Cross the left over the right and make another overhand knot.

Step 4 – Pull tightly to secure.

The Line Coil

Properly coiled lines not only keep your yacht looking neat and tidy, but they also ensure a safe manoeuvrable deck and prevent tangled piles of pesky knots. A well-maintained boat with flawless line coils also has the added benefit of showing other sailors you are a seasoned helmsman (or woman!) with skilled deckhands. 

Step 1 – Start with the end of a line in one hand.

Step 2 – Twist the line away from you as you hand it to the hand collecting the line.

Step 3 – After all of the line has been coiled, wrap the end around the coil.

Step 4 – To make a hanging coil, pass the tail through the loop created by wrapping the line. 

Sheet Bend

A sheet bend is a basic sailing knot used to join lines of two different sizes or materials – it holds well under tension, so it can be used to attach a jib sheet to a clew, or to join anchor lines. 

If one rope is significantly thicker than the other, we recommend doubling the sheet bend (wrapping the thinner of the two ropes twice around the thicker one) as this makes it much more stable. 

To tie a sheet bend:

Step 1 – Form a bight in the end of the thicker line, and pass the thinner line through it.

Step 2 – Wrap the working end of the thinner line around the bight.

Step 3 – Tick the working end of the thinner line under itself, pull tight, and that’s a sheet bend.

Clove Hitch

Last up on our list of the basic sailing knots you need to know before your first yacht charter is a clove hitch. Clove hitches are used to temporarily attach a line to a post or pole – this is useful when docking a boat or securing fenders in place. They are easy to do and undo. 

To tie a clove hitch:

Step 1 – Wrap the end of the line around whatever you’re attaching it to.

Step 2 – Cross the line over itself and wrap it again loosely.

Step 3 – Slip the end of the line under the second loop and pull it taut to lock it. Tug it a couple of times to make sure it’s completely secure, and you’re good to go.

Practise Basic Sailing knots with Sunsail

If you’re interested in learning more about how to tie basic sailing knots, consider applying for one of our sailing schools – we run a variety of courses across our Agana, Lefkas and Portsmouth locations. 

Why not also put these basic sailing knots to the test? Whether it’s a fantastic week spent island-hopping in Antigua, or leisurely exploring the coast of Phuket, our yacht charters span a range of fantastic destinations across the world.
Contact us today for more information, or start building your quote.

Author Name: 
Kaitlyn Nakagoshi


Ian Pedersen

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