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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Knots to Know!

Second String

By Tamia Nelson

January 13, 2004

As every paddler knows, you'll be up the creek in no time if you don't bring a rope. Rope? Yes, rope. Without rope, you'll have no painter or tow line. And how are you going to tie your gear down? Unless you bring plenty of rope or cord, you can't guy your tent against storm winds, either, or hang food bags out of reach of hungry critters. (Some folks make a fuss about the difference between "line" and "rope." I don't, but it's a useful distinction, nonetheless. A line is simply a rope with a job to do. It's rope when it's in your pack, but it's a guy line when it's holding up your tent.)

You get the picture, I'm sure. Rope is essential. But it's not enough by itself. You need to have a few good knots in your bag of tricks, as well. Sure, you can buy all kinds of patent fasteners, but what happens when you break your last Easy-Grip Crab Claw®? You'll need to tie a knot, that's what.

Every paddler has her own favorites, and I'm no exception. The Five Essentials have served me well for decades. If you missed them on the first go-round, here's the lineup again:

Each one's a winner. Together, they're almost unbeatable. Still, even the coach of a championship team needs to call on her second string now and then, and I'm no exception. So here are five more knots, all of them worth adding to your roster:

OK. Those are the new players. Now let's see how they perform in the field.


We'll look at the clove hitch first. (A hitch is a knot that ties a rope to something else.) Want to suspend a clothesline between two trees? Or lash two deadfalls together to make a bipod, in order to lift the peak of your tarp or canoe shelter? The clove hitch does the job.

A few words of warning first, though. When tying the clove hitch in laid rope, it's best to twist the loops with the lay. You want them to lie flat. It's less likely that the hitch will slip. And NEVER use a clove hitch to moor a boat. It loosens each time the direction of pull shifts, and the only thing worse than being up the creek without a paddle is finding yourself on the beach without a boat. A bowline makes a much better mooring knot. (You can also use a round turn and two half hitches, but it's less secure. I prefer the bowline.)

How do you tie a clove hitch? All it takes is a couple of twists of the wrist.

Getting Hitched


Sometimes, though, you have to do more than just tie one on. Suppose you need to pull a sagging line taut, for example, and you want to be able to adjust the tension again later, as the load changes. A trucker's hitch will work here, of course. It multiplies your force, and that can be a big help when you have to tighten a slack line. But the trucker's hitch doesn't always cope well with fluctuating tension, and you often don't need (or want) the mechanical advantage. That's when the tautline hitch comes into its own.

Old salts — and a few young ones, too — know this as the rolling hitch. By either name, it takes the sag out of a limp line. That makes sense, doesn't it? It's a tautline hitch, right? Paddlers can use it instead of patent fasteners to secure guy lines to stakes or deadmen. Once you've made a tautline hitch in your line, you can alter the tension without untying the knot. How does this fine-tuning work? Easy. Need to take up some slack? Slide the barrel of the hitch up the standing part (that's the end of the line that's tied to your tent or tarp). Want to get loose, instead? Then slide the hitch down.

If, like me, you sometimes have trouble distinguishing up from down, a few minutes' experimentation will get you oriented. The easy-adjust feature is a big help to folks with cotton tents or tarps. Cotton shrinks when it gets wet, and if your guy lines are too tight at bedtime, your tent may fall down around you in the night. Here's why. As the temperature drops in the early morning hours, relative humidity increases. Sometimes there's even an appreciable "dew fall." The dew wets the canvas, swelling the fibers, and the tent fabric shrinks. This increases the tension in any guy lines that are already taut. The worst-case scenario? One or more stakes will be pulled right out of the ground, and you'll find yourself smothered in canvas. Surprise!

Fortunately, it's not hard to avoid such rude awakenings. If your tent is made from cotton, slacken your guy lines a bit at night, particularly if you expect rain, fog, or heavy dew. Then you can sleep soundly till the dawn chorus wakes you.

Now for the small print. The tautline hitch works best in light-duty applications and in situations where you'll be adjusting the tension often. If you simply need to get something tight and keep it that way, stick to the trucker's hitch. It's unbeatable for tying down boats on a roof rack, for example, but the tautline hitch is frequently a better choice for guy lines.

Is that all? Not quite. There's a little more to read and heed. The tautline hitch works best when the turns are made with the lay of the rope. Braided ropes and cords are a problem. They have smooth surfaces, and in some cases the tautline hitch may not "bite" well enough to hold. What can you do about this? You have two choices. The first is to take a third turn round the standing part of the line before finishing the knot off. And the other? You guessed it — use a trucker's hitch. (The trucker's hitch doesn't depend on friction to hold.)

That's enough small print. Here's how to make a tautline hitch. If it doesn't look like the one you learned in the Scouts, don't be alarmed. It's another variant, based on the midshipman's hitch. I think it holds better.

A Taut Line is a Happy Line


Taut or not, it sometimes seems like every rope is either too long or too short for the job at hand. The solution to "too short" is simple. Just tie on another line. (Don't do this with climbing or rescue lines, though — not unless the need is urgent and there's no time to fetch a line of the proper length.) "Too long" can be more of a problem. If you cut a line every time you need to shorten it, you'll soon have nothing but three-foot-long lengths.

Instead, give the sheepshank a try. It's also useful when you discover a badly chafed place in a guy line or other non-critical rope. If you don't have time to do a proper repair — and splicing any braided line is tricky, although you can always cut the frayed part out and join the two ends with a fisherman's knot — just bypass the weakened section with a sheepshank. (WARNING! This is a temporary fix at best. And never use a sheepshank in a climbing or rescue line. In fact, it's best to retire any damaged line as soon as possible.)

More small print: The sheepshank will collapse if the line slackens. To reduce the likelihood of failure, use cord to lash the two "ears" — they're the loops at the ends of the knot — to the standing part of the line.

Here's how to tie one.

Getting Short with the Sheepshank


Going back to the problem of the too-short line, let's look at another solution: the sheet bend. (A bend is just a knot for tying two ropes together.) What's wrong with the fisherman's knot? Nothing — if the two lines you need to join are about the same size. If they're different diameters, however, or if they're made of dissimilar materials, you'll probably find that the sheet bend works better. It's not without its faults, however. It can jam after receiving a particularly hard tug, for one thing, becoming all but impossible to untie. And the fisherman's knot remains the second-best way to join rescue and climbing lines. It's a distant second, though. The number-one choice is always to use a long enough rope in the first place. Be prepared!

Now here's how to make a sheet bend.

Around the Bend


Think you've noticed a strong family resemblance between the sheet bend and the bowline? Right on! A sheet bend is a sort of open bowline. And the bowline is still the king of knots. Of course, there are plenty of times when just plain good is good enough. That's when I turn to the round turn and two half hitches

Like its royal cousin, this is a knot to tie ropes to other things. Unlike the bowline, however, you can easily pull the loop (the "round turn") tight — and the knot can be tied while the rope's already under tension. I use a round turn and two half hitches to secure tie-down lines to thwarts in a canoe (often), to attach guy lines to grommets on tarps (sometimes), and even to secure light-duty painters to boats (occasionally). It's easy to tie, but you must pay close attention to the details. The "round turn" is really two turns, for instance. And be sure that you tie both half hitches identically. If you don't, the knot is certain to slip. You'll know you're doing it right if the two half hitches form a clove hitch on the standing part of the rope. Try it and see. The sketch shows how.

One Round Turn Deserves Another

That's it. My second-string roster is complete, and they make a pretty good addition to any paddler's lineup. Why not give them a chance to try out for your team? I'm betting you'll be glad you did.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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