Knots to Know!
Basic Ropecraft for Paddlers
By Tamia Nelson
September 2, 2003
My interest in knots goes back a long way. I was
a climber before I was a paddler, and when you spend your spare time hanging
around on frozen waterfalls, you learn the ropes in a hurry. Or else.
Of course, canoeists and kayakers sometimes find themselves hanging on to a
line for dear life, too. Yet many of the paddlers I've known get by with a grab
bag of poorly tied knots and hanks of badly frayed, bargain-basement rope. And
it's not just beginners. Even experts often have a blind spot where
knots and rope are concerned. Take the case of Charlie's Flying Canoe.
Charlie was a superb paddler. He was also a machinist, so he understood the
principles of distributed stress and failure analysis. Notwithstanding this, he
used anything that came to hand to tie his canoe to his car old, frayed,
discount-house polypropylene, to be exact. He also used too little of it. And
when he was in a hurry, his idea of a good knot was the granny. The result?
Charlie's canoe took a flier off his roof rack at sixty-five miles per hour. I
was right behind him on the Interstate when it happened, and I nearly ended up
with a Blue Hole through my heart.
The scene would have been mighty funny in a slapstick comedy, and we laughed
about it when it happened. Still, it could have been my last curtain call.
I've never forgotten that. Good rope isn't a luxury, and properly tied knots
aren't an optional extra. They're as important to paddlers as a reliable roll
or a smooth J-stroke. No exceptions.
Convinced? Good. Now let's see what we can do
With Enough Rope
Volumes have been written about the lineage and manufacture of rope, but
most paddlers just need to know that there are two main types: laid and braided.
Laid rope is built up from strands twisted ("laid") together. It's
relatively inexpensive, widely available, simple to splice, and easy to
inspect. Twisting the rope "against the lay" opens the strands up for close
examination. Use laid rope for bow and stern lines ("painters") and tracking ropes.
Braided rope the best is braid-and-core, or "kernmantel"
is more complex than laid rope. It's more expensive, too. It's also harder to
splice, and it's usually less stretchy. You can't inspect the inside fibers
without cutting the rope, either, but at least it resists tangling better than
laid rope. That's why it's frequently used in throw bags.
Laid or braided, a rope is only as good as the stuff it's made from. Nylon,
polyester (Dacron®), and polypropylene (polypro) are the usual choices,
though if price is no object you can take your pick from a smorgasbord of
high-performance proprietary fibers like Kevlar® and Spectra®.
Nylon is inexpensive, strong, and stretchy, but the sun's rays will
weaken it over time. Diameter for diameter, polyester is usually a
little bit less strong and a lot less stretchy, but it holds up better in the
heat of the sun. Polypro has a Jekyll and Hyde personality. Cheap
hollow-braid polypro is weak, nasty to handle, and almost impossible to tie,
but good polypro kernmantel is supple and strong. Polypro also floats. For that
reason alone, it's ideal for rescue lines.
What ropes go with what jobs? We've already touched on that, but here's a
recap. Use a good quality polypro kernmantel in your throw bag, and
three-strand laid nylon for everything else. Nylon's a little too stretchy to
make the best tracking
line, and sunlight will weaken it after several years' hard use, but it's
still good enough for most purposes.
How much do you need? Rescue ropes should be 50-75 feet long. (Even with a
throw bag it's hard to toss a line accurately for any greater distance.)
Fifteen feet is about the minimum for kayak grab lines and towlines, and 25
feet is a good length for bow and stern painters on a canoe. A 50-foot coil of
rope is also worth having along for general tracking and lining, though longer
ropes (to 150 feet) have their uses on big rivers. Diameter? One-quarter inch
(6 mm) has enough reserve strength for most boating applications. You'll want
heavier line if you have to winch a boat off a rock, however, and 7/16 inch
(10.5-11 mm) is probably the minimum diameter for a climbing line. Don't use
rope smaller than 1/4 inch for any hauling or load-bearing
application. Even if it's strong enough, it's almost sure to cut your hands.
Now that you have your rope, you'll need to maintain it. The first rule?
Don't step on it! Ever. The rest is common sense. Keep it away from gas, oil,
and petroleum-based solvents. Protect it from chafe: pad sharp corners and rough
edges before running a line over them. And don't let it get too close to the fire.
After each trip and before any period of extended use examine your rope
carefully, replacing it immediately if any strands are cut, or if more than a
few places show evidence of chafe or wear. Dirty or salt-encrusted ropes should
be cleaned. (A good slosh in cold, fresh water is often enough. Dry
thoroughly.) Between trips, store ropes in a cool, dry, dark corner. Take care
of your rope, and it will take care of you.
A final caution: Rope can save your life, but it can also kill you. Anytime
you work with
rope around water you should have a sharp knife, a knife that you can get
at and use with one hand. A Swiss Army pocketknife isn't enough.
OK. We've got our rope. Now it's time to tie one on.
A Few Good Knots
Anyone who can learn to wield a paddle can learn to tie a few good knots,
and every paddler should. Mechanical fasteners and patent gizmos fatigue and
break. Sometimes they get lost in the dirt, or fall overboard. But once you
learn a knot, it's yours for life. Here's my list of the Five Essentials. Don't
leave home without them.
The reef knot is also known as the square knot.
Use it for lashing gear into your boat and tying off bags. Don't use it to join two
lines, however. (Use the "fisherman's knot," instead.) Make it
exactly like the picture. If the two free ("bitter") ends stick out at right
angles when you pull the knot taut, you've tied a granny, not a reef knot. This
is not good. And if the free ends don't lie on the same side? You have a
"thief's knot." That's even worse. It will start to slip almost before you've
finished tying it.
The bowline is often called the king of knots,
and it's the knot of choice when you want a non-slip loop at the end of a line. Use it
to attach painters
to boats, boats to racks, and guys to tarps. Function follows form, though.
Make sure your bowline looks like the bowline in the picture. One caveat: the
bowline works best with laid rope. Use extra care if you're going to tie one in
braided line. Snug it down tight and secure the bitter end with a simple
overhand knot, or "stopper." In fact, a stopper's a good idea on all types of
The only real competition for the bowline comes from the
figure-eight loop. Developed by climbers when kernmantel replaced laid
rope in the mountains, the figure-eight holds well, is simple to tie, and can be
formed with ease anywhere along a rope. It doesn't jam, either. That means it's a
snap to undo, even after taking a heavy load. The bowline has one great advantage,
however it's easier to get exactly the size loop you want, first time
The figure-eight knot tie it the same way as the loop, but
don't double the line first makes a fine stopper at the end of a rope.
It just the ticket when you want to prevent a line or cord from slipping
through a hole or eye. I use it for everything from light-duty painters to the
drawstring on my rucksack.
Sometimes you need a tight line. That's when the trucker's
hitch earns its keep. With bowlines securing your painters to your boat's grab
loops, and trucker's hitches on the other ends, you've got a bomb-proof fore-and-aft
tie-down for the highway. (But don't forget to add a couple of belly ties, too.)
And that's not all the trucker's hitch is good for. Use it to take the slack
out of the guys on your tent or
even to tighten the camp clothesline. Old-timers used the tautline hitch for
these purposes, but the trucker's hitch will do nearly everything the tautline can,
and a lot more besides. It can even help you winch a boat off a rock.
Once again, function follows form. If it's right, it's tight, but if it's
wrong, it's useless. A picture's worth a thousand words here. Tie one yourself
and see. Then, after adjusting the tension, lock the hitch in place with a couple
of half hitches. (If you want to be able to undo the knot quickly, you can "slip"
the second half hitch double the bitter end back on itself but
don't do this unless you really need to. It's more important for the hitch to stay tied.)
CAUTION! It's very easy to overtighten a trucker's hitch. If you aren't
careful, you can rip the gunwales right off your boat or tear the deck of
your kayak free of the hull. Easy does it!
Caught short? Need a longer rope? Don't join two short
ropes with a reef knot and hope for the best. Use the fisherman's knot
instead. Also known as the "waterman's knot," it's very strong and it doesn't
often jam. Is it perfect? No. It works best with ropes of equal diameter and
construction. You have to tie the knot exactly as shown, too. If the overhand
loops aren't opposed, you'll have a weak link, one that will let you down just when
you need it most. (WARNING! Unless a life-or-death emergency demands it, you
should never join climbing or rescue ropes with any knot. There's only one safe way
to get a longer rope: buy it.)
There you have 'em: the Five Essentials. Knots every paddler needs to know.
But don't just tie them once and then forget them. Keep practicing until you
can tie them in the dark. Then they'll be part of your toolkit forever.
Copyright © 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights