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A sailor’s best friend is always aboard to help

2024 June 1

I try to stay out of trouble writing this column. I avoid taking stands on issues that might cause gastric distress among readers. I never touch politics, the deadly third rail of discourse. I write about sailing, not the culture wars. 

This is as much about therapy as it is caution. In my other writing life, I churn out newspaper editorials that often brush the third rail and other sensitive spots, provoking a fair amount of reader feedback, positive and negative. The latter tends be louder. 

I’ve been tempted during some of those conversations to resort to the immortal words of William Buckley, the sailor, author, pundit and magazine publisher who was known to tell irate National Review subscribers demanding to be removed from the mailing list: “Cancel your own goddamn subscription!”

In spite of my efforts to keep the peace in this space, however, a few columns have irritated a few readers. The subject of one was a knot. No kidding. It might have been the first time in maritime history that the bowline was controversial.

The column that rubbed a couple of subscribers the wrong way was a paean to what I called the best knot for sailors ever invented. I’d have been safe if I had stopped there, but then I recklessly added that the bowline was also the best knot for mountain climbing.

Two climbers registered strong protests. One accused me of promoting what he described as a climbing “death knot.” The other upbraided me for being ignorant of the dragon double loop, a knot he insisted was universally known to be superior to the bowline in all ways.

That stung, especially the part suggesting that my knot knowledge was inferior, but I was not daunted then, and I’m not now. I stand by the bowline.

The bowline is the sailor’s best friend. The ancient phrase describing the essential abilities of a prime seafarer should be augmented to “hand, reef, steer and tie a bowline.”

Tying it is an essential sailing skill because a bowline can attach a line to anything, can be tied in a few seconds and won’t come undone until you want it to and then, no matter how much strain you’ve put on it, it always does. 

Most sailors can tie a bowline by rote. Some can do it with their eyes closed. The standard method is to pass the end of the line through a loop, then around the standing part of the line and back through the loop. 

There are other ways to tie it, but why would you, for example, feel a need to tie a one-handed bowline? As far as I can tell, this variation is mainly used for showing off by people with advanced dexterity.

Sailors have been tying bowlines for centuries, maybe even millenia. A writer named John Smith described the bowline in 1627 in the book Seaman’s Grammar. It is said that archaeologists discovered what looked like a bowline when excavating the ship that took the mummified pharaoh Cheops on his final voyage in the 26th century BC.

The bowline is included, of course, in The Ashley Book of Knots. This epic work lists 2,000 knots and is considered the knot tyer’s bible, but it has an irritating flaw. The author, Clifford W. Ashley, failed to anoint the bowline as the best sailor’s knot. Instead, he carried on about the carrick bend, declaring it to be “the nearest thing we have to the perfect bend.”

What makes that knot nearly perfect, Ashley wrote, is that it’s easy to tie, doesn’t slip, cannot jam, is easily untied and is symmetrical. Except for the symmetrical part (only a knot nut could care about that), everything he praises about the carrick bend is found in the bowline. 

The bowline is not a bend, but it can do the same thing as the carrick by joining two lines with a bowline in a bowline. Connecting lines is all the carrick can do, besides pleasing fastidious tyers with its symmetry. It can’t fasten a line to the clew of a headsail or anything else. 

The bowline, on the other hand, excels as a means to attach sheets to sails. Hardware makers have tried for a long time to improve on the bowline with snapshackles of various designs spliced onto sheets. They never got there. A tidy, short-looped bowline is more secure, won’t damage the mast or any other part of the boat during tacks and costs nothing.

True, the bowline has been replaced as a sheet connector on some boats by so-called soft shackles made of Dyneema. These are admirable products that do their job well and come with the bonus of looking cool. Still, they can be clumsy to attach and are not as dependable as a bowline.

And when it comes to flying asymmetrical spinnakers, the bowline has no competition. There is no better way to attach skinny yet immensely strong sheets made of high-tech rope to these powerful sails.

If I were allowed only one knot on my boat, you know what it would be, but I’d like some others. In order of usefulness, they would be the clove hitch, rolling hitch, sheet bend (not symmetrical but just
as good as the carrick bend) and the square knot.
Just by happenstance, these are the knots, starting with the bowline, that Navy SEALs are required
to learn.

I can’t imagine the Navy or sailors of any kind having a use for the dragon double loop recommended by my climber critic. It’s slow to tie, can’t be threaded through or around an object before closing and is prone to jamming into a forever knot.

Regarding the “death knot” slur, if a bowline has failed climbers, it must be because it was improperly tied. Tied correctly and pulled tight, it deserves to be called the life knot. It’s what keeps sailors safe when they are “climbing”—going aloft in a bosun’s chair. It’s unsafe to hook on to the chair or harness with the snap shackle at the end of the halyard being used. It can fail. Halyards, preferably two of them, should be tied on with can’t-fail bowlines.

In the bowline we trust.