Learn to Tie Knots – Foolproof Eight Step System

woman sailing yacht knot

If you want to see the sea, it’s a good idea to learn how to tie knots.

To do anything in life, you have to have a strong enough reason why. Picture this….

The wind is building, one of the sheet ropes controlling the foresail has come off, you need to tack away from a lee shore but you can’t until the sheet is tied back onto the clew of the sail. It’s nearly dark. A simple bowline will do the job. You know this knot so well you can tie it with one hand. Shuffling forward keeping one hand for the boat you attach the sheet, then go back to the cockpit and tack. Problem solved.

That is your reason why. There are thousands of situations like this that can easily go very bad or be nipped in the bud with some basic seamanship.

It is too late trying to remember how to tie a knot when your options are fast diminishing.

So now you have your reason why, you need a system to learn knots.

What other sites don’t teach you is how to learn to tie knots, how to teach yourself.

The system I teach works.

When I was a Sea Cadet I struggled to remember knots at first. Then one parade night, a salty regular force navy seaman visited our unit. Warrant Officer “Whanga” [pronounced Fonga], had a big presence that demanded respect.

When I look back I realise his Maori Mana was strong with a sense of prestige, authority, control, influence, status and spiritual power, winning the respect of 12-year-old me. When he spoke, I listened.

One big thing WO Whanga taught me has stayed with me all my life.

He taught me how to teach myself, how to learn and remember Seaman’s knots.

I’m going to share with you what he taught me.

Eight Steps to Learning How to Learn knots

  • Get your BR (Book of Reference).
  • Study the illustrations, explanations and uses for the knot you want to learn.
  • Get a suitable piece of cordage.
  • Tie the knot in front of you, five times in a row without error.
  • Tie the knot in front of you, five times in a row without error, with your eyes closed.
  • Tie the knot behind your back, five times in a row without error.
  • Tie the same knot using different cordage in different places.
  • Teach someone else how to tie the knot you just learnt.

If you follow each step of this system, I guarantee you will master any knot you set your mind too.

At the time, I didn’t appreciate Warrant Officer Whanga’s system for learning knots, I was just following orders really. Now I am older and wiser I can see his strategy clearly.

Your Knot Tying BR (Book of Reference)

Books are best.

Despite all the fantastic graphics, available online through Blogs and websites, a good seamanship book is still better at sea. I still have my original BR’s 43 years later. Like an old friend, I revisit them from time to time.

Looking at a computer screen at sea is less comfortable than a book of reference. If it is uncomfortable, chances are you will procrastinate, you won’t go there. If you do go to the device to reference a knot, I bet you get distracted and the moment will be lost.

Books are best.

Study the Illustrations and…

Read the history behind the knot, where the knot is best applied and its limitations.

A picture may be equivalent to a thousand words, but the words give you the how and why.

Learning how best to teach yourself knot tying requires some focus.

Learning how to learn is a skill and like any skill, it gets easier with practice. As learning gets easier, life becomes more enjoyable.

At this point the voices in your head are probably saying  “I can’t tie knots” or “tying knots is hard”.  

Stop that negative self-talk. It’s not helping you.

Try saying to yourself I can’t tie knots yet.

Unless you have some physical disability, there is no good reason why you can’t tie a knot.

You can tie knots by referencing a good book on Seamanship.

Get a Suitable Piece of Cordage

When I was learning to learn knot tying, we didn’t have the range of cordage available today. It was easier. I’ll tell you why.

We would roll off a meter or two of natural fiber three strand, slice through with our meticulously maintained seaman’s knife, whip one end and put an eye splice in the other end and go for it.

These days, there is a huge selection of man made fiber cordage. Some of these modern lines are very slippery and not ideal for learning knot tying.

Ideally you may be able to find a good length of laid natural fibre cordage like Sisal or Manilla, with spiralling strands and yarns. Natural fibre has a stiffness to it that helps you control the line when learning.

If you can’t find natural fiber cordage, a good length of braided line will do the job, so long as it is not too slippery. As a rule, the shinier the look, the more slippery the line. Braided Line is more common these days so you may not get the choice.

Man made or natural fiber, it doesn’t matter as much as getting on with the learning.

Just try avoid shiny cordage when learning.

Tie the knot in front of you, five times in a row without error

This seems self-explanatory, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

If you make a mistake, start counting from zero again. Don’t cheat, you’re only cheating yourself.

By doing this you are using your two main senses; sight and touch. The muscles in your fingers are developing a system to control the cordage.

Your eyes are helping you visualize the process.

You are forming more than one memory. The more memories you create in relation to tying that knot, the more you are likely to remember it.

I remember the smell of the cordage locker, the tared sisal, Warrant Officer Whanga’s presence, the feel of the 13mm or half inch Sisal in my hands, the people who were learning with me, like it was last week.

Tie the knot in front of you, five times in a row without error, with your eyes closed

By repeating the first step, but with your eyes closed, you are building confidence and making the touch sense memories more dominant than the visual.

If you can tie the knot with your eyes closed, you’ll be able to tie it in the middle of a dark moonless night without having to compromise your night vision by turning on a light.

Having said that, it is surprising how much ambient light there is at sea, even on the darkest of nights.

Learning to tie knots primarily by feel, has its benefits.

Tie the knot behind your back, five times in a row without error.

I don’t know why this works so well, I’m not a psychologist.

What I do know is that if you miss this step when initially learning a knot, your chance of remembering it later is greatly diminished.

The chance of you ever having to tie a knot behind your back is slim I suspect.

Never the less, don’t miss this step!

Tie the same knot using different cordage in different places.

There were several times I initially thought I had learnt a knot then struggled to put it to practical use on vessels.

It is important that you try to use the knot you have just learnt in an environment the knot was created for, on a boat.

By doing this you are forming more memories. The more the better.

Grab any rope handy, thick or thin, man made of natural fiber, laid, braided or plated, shiny and slippery, new or old, it doesn’t matter now that you have learnt the basics.

Secure one end and put the knot you have learnt under the kind of load it was designed for. Learn to trust it, or not.

It won’t take you long to work out which knot to trust in which application.

Play around with this before using your knot in real situations.

Many dinghies have been lost because the wrong knot was used.

Teach someone else how to tie the knot you just learnt.

You teach best what you need to know the most.

Teaching adds a whole new dimension to knot tying.

When you teach a knot that you have just learnt to someone else, several things happen;

  • You see the knot from new dimensions, adding new memories associated with that knot.
  • You earn the respect of the person you teach, provided you remain patient.
  • You increase the level of seamanship in your circle of influence.

Not all knots are equal.

Make sure you are learning seaman’s knots or boat knots.

A proper seaman’s knot can always be easily undone by hand after heavy loads have been applied.

You don’t have to be a Marlin Spike Sailor to cover most situations that require a knot.

A few key knots will keep you and the vessel you work safe.

Avoid using land based knots, unless you intend cutting the line when it jams.

Where to get a good book on Knots

Most seaman’s knots are timeless, born of the days when ships were made of wood and men were made of steel.

Second hand book stores are a great place to find some of the best books on Knot tying.

Or you could go to Amazon.

Here are some I found that will serve you well and last a lifetime.

The Marlinspike Sailor

The Knots Handbook

The Ashley Book of Knots



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Leave a Comment:

Will says April 26, 2017

Sound advice just tried doing an old favourite behind my back …. trickier than I thought⛵️⚓️

    Lindsay says April 28, 2017

    Thanks Will. Good on you for checking you’ve still got it.

    By the way, the podcast we recorded should be ready to publish in the next few days.

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