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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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.

Rope Rap

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.

NOT a Granny Knot


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 rope.

The King of Knots


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 out.

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.

A Perfect Figure-Eight


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 tarp, 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!

Getting Hitched


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.)

Getting It Together


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 reserved.

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