Tying proper knots seems to be becoming a bit of a dying art. At one time, every boy scout (and presumably girl scout, too, but as I was never one of those, I can’t say for sure) knew how to tell a sheet bend from a sheepshank and would never be caught tying a granny knot instead of a reef knot. However, in the age of video games, bungee cord and duct tape, I suspect few people nowadays could even name a single type of knot let alone know how to tie it properly. At the most, they might know how to tie their shoe laces, but few will know it’s called a bow knot.
Now, you might well ask, does this really matter? Does your average man (or woman) on the street really need to know how to tie a knot properly? After all, when is he or she ever likely to need to do it? The answer here is, emphatically, yes. Why? Because one day it might just save his/her life. We never know what’s just around the corner, or when civilisation might come crashing down around our ears, and if that were ever to happen a knowledge of knots will prove incredibly useful and will help you live while those around you die. Okay, maybe I’m over-stating things a little there, but knowing how to tie knots properly is definitely an important survival skill, and not just in a post-apocalyptic world. Knowing how to tie knots properly can come in pretty useful in real life emergencies too.
Below, I’m going to show you (with the help of some rather useful videos from AnimatedKnots.com), how to tie five knots which I would consider essential to know. Yes, there are others, but these five will cover about 99% of all the possible knots you’ll ever need to use. However, before I do that, I want to consider how you tell whether a knot is good for using in any given situation or not. There are three parts to this.
First, a knot shouldn’t slip in any way unless you want it to. This means that (for most knots), once they are tied they shouldn’t move along the rope no matter how much pressure you put on them. This is particularly important if you are tying a rope around yourself where any slipping can result in serious injuries, but more of that later.
Second, a knot shouldn’t come undone either under pressure or when pressure is removed from it. That is, the knot should remain tied for as long as you want it to. It’s surprising how many tied knots, even if they are tied properly, will eventually work themselves free if you use them in the wrong situation (as anyone who has tripped over their own shoelaces will be able to testify!).
Finally, and this will seem odd at first, you need to be able to untie a knot quickly and easily when you want to. Why? Well, knots, by definition, are temporary structures and are designed to be undone when needed. After all, if you wanted to do something more permanent with a rope, you’d use a splice rather than a knot (but that’s another matter altogether). Instead, knots are meant to be a short-term solution which allows you to use a rope for a specific purpose, and then undo them again so you can use your rope for another purpose afterwards.
The importance of being able to untie knots again was brought home to me when I was about 20 and was sailing off the coast of Labrador in Canada. We were towing a heavy motorboat and as the seas around us rose as a we entered a storm, we needed to lengthen the tow rope to stop the motorboat plowing into the back of our yacht. The only problem was I’d been a bit sloppy with my knot tying and had accidentally used the wrong knot to secure the tow rope to the yacht. There was a frantic twenty minutes as I wrestled with the knot, as the motorboat alternated between threatening to sink and threatening to crash into us, before I finally got it undone and we were able to lengthen tow rope so that the motorboat remained far enough away that we could safely tow it. Needless to say, the bollocking I got from the yacht’s captain for my mistake meant that ever since that moment, I’ve always made damn sure that I get my knots right!
So, what are these five essential knots?
The first is the bowline. If you need to tie a rope around yourself for any reason whatsoever, this is the only knot you should use. This is because it is the only one guaranteed not to tighten under pressure and accidentally crush your internal organs to a pulp or, indeed, slice you in half! You might think I’m being over-dramatic here, but I’m not and many an inexperienced knot user has come to a grizzly end because they didn’t know how to tie a bowline properly. So here’s how to tie one:
The second is the sheet bend. The sheet bend is a charmingly simple knot that is amazingly strong. In addition, unlike many other knots, it doesn’t require both sides of the knot to be made from ropes of the same diameter. This makes it my go-to knot for joining two lengths of rope together.
The third knot is round turn and two half hitches. This is actually a combination of three separate knots (as the name suggests, a round turn and two knots known as half hitches!). If you need to secure a rope to something, like a branch, or to tie the a boat to a pier to stop it floating away, this is the knot you should use. This having been said, I would generally recommend three half hitches rather than the standard two, just to be on the safe side, and you can even add a fourth if you’re really paranoid. You should, however, never tie this knot around your body because at its heart it’s a slip knot, and it can, and will, tighten under pressure.
The fourth knot is the good old-fashioned reef knot (which is also known as a square knot). This is perfect for joining two ropes of equal thickness, or joining two ends of the same rope together. Again, it’s a deceptively simple knot, but one which is easy to get wrong. If you do, you’ll end up with either two half hitches, which will mean the ropes will separate under pressure, or a granny knot, which is almost impossible to get untied again, especially in a hurry.
The final knot isn’t really a knot as such, but is exceedingly useful. This is the square lashing. With square lashing, you can tie two poles together, and from there you can make a lean-to to give you shelter from the elements, a stretcher for emergencies, secure supplies to roof racks, build a raft and many other useful things. Thus, knowing how to do box lashing properly comes in useful on a surprisingly frequent basis. Here’s how it’s done:
So, that’s knots for you. If you don’t already know how to tie them, get practicing now, and if you do, you can start developing your skills further. How about doing them blindfolded, or in the dark? How about doing them as fast as you can? Or with only one hand? Can you, for example, tie a bowline one-handed? These little tricks might not help you impress potential partners at parties, but they might, one day, save your life!
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.