Square knot

Did You Know Knot Tying is a Critical Skill in Sailing?

Terry talks about the skill needed for making ropes and tying knots.

Author: Terry Williams, Conservator

Knowing how to tie the proper knot could mean the difference between a successful sail and disaster. Ropes and knots are ancient technology. So old in fact, that fossilized rope fragments have been found in the Caves of Lascaux, France that date to 15000 BC. Historians speculate that humans got the idea for knots from viewing twisting vines; and that this discovery led to the creation of ancient axes as early man used vines to attach stone to wood. From 4000 BC to 3500 BC, the Egyptians made rope from water reed fibers. As ropes evolved and spread throughout the world, sources for rope were equally diversified, and included papyrus, date palm, grass, flax, and even leather and animal hair.

Ropewalk in Norway
Ropewalk in Norway

International trade by sailing vessels skyrocketed in late medieval Europe (1250-1500) and so did the demand for ropes. The ropewalk,* a hand-crafted method of making rope had already been in use since the Middle Ages. By the 18th century, various machines could make different types of rope.

Cleat hitch
Cleat hitch

By definition, a knot is the interlacement of parts of one or more ropes, to bind objects together. Knot making became truly advanced during this period, as mariners showed great creativity in devising knots for countless purposes. As a result, there are literally hundreds of knots and variations on knots, with some estimating around 4000 in total.

According to the American Sailing Association, there are three key knots every sailor should know. First is the bowline, used by sailors for at least 500 years. It is one way to turn the end of a rope, or line, into a loop and can be used to secure a line around a post or to tie two lines together. The second knot you should have in your bag of tricks is a clove hitch. It is very quick to tie and untie, but it doesn’t hold as well as the bowline. On sailboats, one of its most common uses is hanging the fenders over the side of the boat as it comes into dock. Thirdly, there is the cleat hitch - this knot has one purpose: tying a line to the cleat. This is used all the time on a sailboat, whether docking or towing a dinghy.

Rope from QAR
Rope from the QAR site

How much rope was on La Concorde/Queen Anne’s Revenge? Using the British Navy as a guide, an 18th-century, a large sailing ship required 43 miles of rope, coming in at 78.5 tons of cordage. Even if not that much, our ship undoubtedly had a lot of rope. We still find it somewhat regularly today, 300 years hence, but more on that later!


*Did you know the first ropewalk in North Carolina was established in Edenton in 1783, followed by later facilities at New Bern and Plymouth? This arduous and highly-skilled work was often performed by enslaved individuals, and locally manufactured rope was said to be superior in quality compared to imported.


-“Lost Knowledge: Ropes and Knots,” Low-Tech Magazine. Accessed March 7, 2022. https://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2010/06/lost-knowledge-ropes-and-knots.html 

-“Knots Made Easy,” American Sailing Association. Accessed March 1, 2022. https://asa.com/knots-made-easy-videos/ 

-“Sailing Knots: Most Essential Tips and Tricks,” Travelinsightpedia. Accessed March 1, 2022. https://www.travelinsightpedia.com/essentials-of-sailing-knots 


Main Image: Beautiful (but deadly) square knot. Image by woodleywonderworks. {{CC BY 2.0}}

-Ropewalk at Skarmyra i Moss, Norway. Author unknown. {{CC BY-SA 4.0}}

-Cleat hitch. Image by BenFrantzDale. {{CC BY-SA 2.5}}

-Well-preserved rope from Site 31CR314, La Concorde/Queen Anne’s Revenge. Image by NC Dept of Natural and Cultural Resources.

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