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Starting Out

Knots to Know—The Bowline

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

OK. You've got your rope. Now what are you going to do with it? Tie your boat down for the trip to the put-in? Track your canoe upstream? Rig a sail? Attach an anchor? Lower your loaded kayak down a sea-cliff? Whatever you'll be using your rope for, chances are pretty good you'll want to put a fixed loop in it sooner or later.

And how are you going to do that? The time-honored answer is the bowline. It's no Johnny-come-lately. John Smith's Seaman's Grammar—a best-seller in 1627—mentions it. Going even further back, a "curiously intricate knot…akin to the bowline" was found on a scrap of rigging during the excavation of the Egyptian Pharaoh Cheops' solar ship.

So the bowline has a long pedigree. So what? Well, when a knot's been in use for more than 4,500 years, it must have something going for it, and the bowline does. Its virtues are legion. The bowline is easy to tie, for one thing, and once properly tied, it yields a high breaking-strength loop that almost never slips or jams. These are all good things. A knot which breaks isn't much good to anyone, and while all knots weaken the rope they're tied in, a bowline weakens a line by only around 40%. Non-slip? That doesn't require much explanation. If you want a fixed loop, you don't want it to slip. Doesn't jam? Fixed loop or not, sooner or later you'll want to untie it. If you can't—or if you have to struggle for minutes, tearing your fingernails back to the quick in the process—you won't be very happy. The best knots stay tied just as long as you want them to, and no longer. When the time comes, they're as easy to untie as they were to tie. The bowline is such a knot.

All right, then. I hope I've convinced you that the bowline is a knot worth adding to your bag of tricks. How do you tie it?

First, look at the sketch below, and keep it in front of you as you practice. Now form 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 "bitter" or "working" end. Thread the bitter end up through the cuckold's neck, under the standing portion of the rope, and back through the neck. Then snug the knot down by pulling on both the standing part and bitter end. You're done.

It's as Easy as 1-2-3!

A couple of points to remember :

  • Form the cuckold's neck exactly as shown in the sketch (southpaws will see a mirror-image). If you reverse it, your bowline will collapse when you pull it tight. The remedy? Start over, making the cuckold's neck properly.

  • Don't be stingy with your rope when tying the bowline (or any other knot). In forming the loop, pull a generous length of line through the neck. For critical applications—and most applications are critical!—you should tie off the bitter end after finishing your bowline. Use a simple overhand knot, tied around the adjacent portion of the loop. This is known as "stopping" the knot, and it reduces the likelihood that the bowline will work loose and come apart.

Once you've mastered the basic sequence, you'll want to streamline it a bit. Here's how. Hold the bitter end in your right hand (southpaws read "left hand") and the standing part in your left (southpaws read "right"). Next, cross the bitter end over the standing part, grabbing the standing part between the thumb and middle-finger of your right hand. Now twist your right hand down and around, tucking the bitter end under the standing part and keeping it in the resulting neck. If you've done it correctly, you'll find yourself at Step #1 in the illustration above, with the open palm of your right hand facing up. All that's left for you to do is to thread the bitter end under the standing part, bring it back though the neck, and pull taut as before.

Not bad, eh? A strong, non-slip, jam-proof loop that you can tie with little more than a twist of the wrist. The bowline—tie it right, and it won't let you down. 'Nuff said.

Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.



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More Articles

 • A Need for 'Life Skills'
 • Knots to Know -- The Figure-Eight
 • Tips-n-Tricks
 • At Rope’s End – And Beyond.
 

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