What are the Most Common Knots Used by Sailors?

Brendan McGuigan

In the world of sailing — especially historically — rope use played an enormous part, and successful knots could make the difference between survival and death in a crisis. In some instances, a knot needed to hold fast no matter what happened, while in others, a quick release might be necessary. As a result, there are an incredible amount of knots used by sailors, but some are more useful and widespread than others.

An sailor should know how to perform knot tying and line splicing.
An sailor should know how to perform knot tying and line splicing.

Perhaps the most common of the knots used by sailors is the aptly-named Sailor’s Knot. The Sailor’s Knot is also known as the Carrick Bend or the Anchor Bend, and it is a very easy-to-tie knot that holds strong and comes unfastened quickly if pulled correctly. The Sailor’s Knot is most commonly used to tie two pieces of line together, though it may be adapted to fasten a line to a pole. To tie a Sailor’s Knot, one makes a loop with the first piece of line, then runs the second piece of line over the loop, around the back of one end of the first line, through the trunk of the line, over the second end of the first line, and then through the first loop. Basically, one makes a bend with one line, then mirrors that bend with the second line while weaving the two lines together.

A Figure-Eight Knot is another of the many knots used by sailors, in this case primarily as what is known as a stopper knot. Stopper knots used by sailors are designed to make an obstruction somewhere along the line so that it won’t easily pass through a line block or an eyelet. The Figure-Eight Knot is also known as a Savoy or Flemish Knot. It may also be used as a relatively easy way to tie two pieces of line together. To form a Figure-Eight Knot, one basically runs the line in a figure-eight, feeding it back through itself to secure the knot. To splice two lines together, one makes the figure-eight on one line loosely, then feeds the second line through the figure-eight, essentially resulting in two figure-eights that thread one another, which can then be tightened for a rather secure connection.

The Fisherman’s Knot is another of the knots used by sailors, particularly sailors on a fishing vessel — as the name implies. A Fisherman’s Knot is not the strongest of knots, but can be easily tied without much precision, making it ideal for extremely cold weather, when a sailor’s hands might not have the dexterity necessary for a more complex knot. To make a Fisherman’s Knot, one takes the two pieces of line and faces them to one another, making a simple loop in one line, threading the second line through the first, tightening this knot, and then repeating the procedure by running the first line through a loop in the second.

The Bowline is the next of the most common knots used by sailors, and is one of the first knots many people learn to tie. A Bowline is the ideal knot for fastening a line down to a lanyard or loop, and it is often used to tether a ship or to tie down a sail. The easiest — though not the fastest — way to tie a Bowline is often referred to as the Bunny method, because of the many variations on a mnemonic device people use to remember how to tie it. Basically, one makes a loop with the line, runs the working end of the line through the hole, loops the working end underneath the far end of the line, and then loops it through the hole again. If one considers the loop a rabbit’s burrow, the end of the line the rabbit, and the far side of the line a tree, one can imagine the rabbit coming out of its hole, looping around the tree, and then returning to its burrow.

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Discussion Comments


@anamur-- I'd say that the bowline is a good one to know starting off. It's easy and it also won't create any problems for you as you are learning because it can be undone easily. This was the first knot I learned.

A bend is when you make a knot with two ropes. A regular knot is with one rope. And if you make a knot tying a rope to something else, it's called a hitch.


I read that some of these knots can also be used as bends. What does that mean?

And if I had to pick one of these knots to learn as a beginner, which should it be? Which will come most useful when sailing? Is it the sailor's knot?


My dad was a sailor, taught me a lot about knots because I also use knots when mountain climbing.

This article is a really good, comprehensive introduction. A few other popular sailing knots that I know about are the reef knot, strangle knot and sheepshank.

The reef is basically made with two knots opposite to each other.

Strangle knot is binded by pulling the rope under and over several times. It's really tight and holds on. Sailors use this a lot.

Sheepshank is a knot you can make if you extra rope that you don't want.

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