The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

A Cool Thing I Just Learned


Can you spot the key difference between the two photographs?

Don’t be too upset if you didn’t get it. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have either if frequent commenter and engineer Eric Klem hadn’t taught me a better way to tie a bowline.

Having said that, even though I learned this back in March, at least in theory, I had pretty much forgotten it until today when I was reaving new traveler control lines and it struck me that the tail of the bowline, tied the way I always have (photo 1), stuck out so it could foul another part of the tackle.

In this case, and most others I think, tying the knot Eric’s way (photo 2), which captures the tail inside the knot, is much neater, less likely to foul or chafe, and all around just better.

Now all I have to do is break my bowline tying habits of 55 years—with luck I might just get it by the time I’m 80.

Isn’t that just the coolest thing about boating? No matter how long we have been doing it, there is always more really good stuff to learn.


Did you learn anything really useful lately? If so, please share it with a comment.

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I clearly remember that when we were taught the bowline during the RYA Competent Crew course, the instructor mentioned that the end should be on the inside – he never explained why though…


End on the outside of the loop makes the knot 40% weaker!


Funny, I clearly remember being taught to have the end on the outside because it could be get jammed and prevent the easy untying of the bowline. That never convinced me one bit and of course this ominous “jamming” never happened. So I always tie the bowline with the end on the inside and now I know why.
I used to think that I know all the knots that I needed until I came across Teresa Carey’s website and learned two useful new to me knots: The “Zeppelin Bend” and the “Constrictor knot”.
Well, the latter I knew for some time already, they are both very useful

Marc Dacey

If I recall, I learned the Zeppelin Bend from Brion Toss’s “The Rigger’s Apprentice” and I still use it quite a bit for tying down tarps and whatnot. Reef knots aren’t even the best knots for reefs! I agree that “forever learning” should be the default mode for the prudent sailor.

Looking at that site, I realize that I use the “slippery hitch” pictured for fenders. Because I have pipe stanchions, I tend to tie the two loops on the horizontal pipe either side of the vertical stanchion, which keeps it from sliding around, but I finish it as pictured.


I have always read that the proper way to tie a sheet bend is with the tails on the same side, I think to prevent capsizing. This knot is topologically equivalent to a bowline in the sense that if you cut the loop of an inside-tail bowline, you now have a same-side-tails sheet bend. If the bowline’s tail was outside, you will get an opposite-side-tails sheet bend instead. It’s nice to know that the “theory” of knots is internally consistent!


I think this might be a bit application/training specific. For uses like this where the knot can be unloaded before being capsized and untied, OK. I was taught when using a bowline to hoist anything heavy ( a log in this case) or valuable (a human) the running end should be away from the load so the knot can be capsized under load. We were also required to leave a long enough tail so we could capsize the knot.

Bill Attwood

I have always tied the bowline with the tail on the inside, although other than feeling that looks right, I never knew why. I also tie the knot by the “capsizing” method, and must check to see if that precludes having the tail on the outside. Interesting and logical reasons for tying with a long tail on the outside, but I wonder if it would be physically possible to capsize a jammed bowline by this method, certainly not if under load. A digression to stopper knots (tails being the connecting thread) being tied with “a knot and a tail”. The main reason is that in the event of a line running free, and the stopper knot doing its job, there is enough of a tail left to recover the line.
Yours aye


Another thing that I learned recently comes to mind: When poling out my genoa I found it much better to use a snatchblock – fixed to the end of the pole with a soft shackle- as a lead for the running sheet instead of leading it through the jaw of the pole’s end fitting. The snacht block now lives permanently on the pole and makes adjustments of the sheet much easier and also reduces compression load on the pole while I crank in.


Hi John,
no, not at all, the block points slightly downwards, away from the pole. The only disadvantage I discovered is that the effectice length of the pole is reduced slightly, by about 10, maybe 15 cm ( length of the soft shackle plus about half the block length)
But it may also depend on the type of end fitting that you use on MC.


Nothing against knots but the best thing to do for this type of long term static application is to use an eye splice for the dead end. Anybody voyaging for long periods should learn how to maye eye splices in the types of lines used in their boat. That is neatest, strongest, and most unlikely to get in the way of anything. OK, you are talking about the two different ways to tie a bowline and not necessarily about the application in the illustration but perhaps you should have shown a jib sheet then? For a traveler or a jib car or something static like that, an eye splice in the dead end is the way to go. A know just gets in the way and limits the ultimate throw.


Alex, I absolutely agree, nothing beats a a good eye splice except in applications where you turn the rope end for end or shift it a little to move the spot of chafe like in windvane steering lines. I learned to splice the modern braid ropes and it is really satisfying to see the result. I never came around to splicing the traveller car controlling lines on my boat though, shame on me.

Drew Frye

I prefer the knot:
* I can re-reave the tackle in minutes should twist accumulate. It is twist that jamms the traveler more often than the tail of a knot.
* I have a traveler like this; a splice restricts the motion by a few inches.
* It is a hand-tensioned line. Even in a crash jibe the forces are tiny (I use dynamic rope on the traveller—no impact).
* Splicing dynamic rope is nearly impossible.

The “inside” version of the bowline is slightly stronger (testing).

I splice when I feel there is a reason… which is a small percentage.


Oh my goodness, does this mean I’ve been doing it right for the last 12 years? Yay! The little rabbit comes up through the hole, around the tree then goes back down the hole!

Stein Varjord

I actually love to learn more than enjoy teaching, even though I probably quite often seem like an intolerable know-it-all. This site is a good one for developing competence that works.

I feel I know knots well enough to serve most situations, but I can definitely improve quite a bit, so I’ve been looking around a bit for inspiration. Sailors depend on ropes and knots, but climbers much more so. If climbers agree on one specific way to do something, it’s the best way. They have fewer application types, but still quite a lot.

A couple of years ago I discovered the “Alpine Butterfly Knot”, used a lot by all climbers. A very simple and useful knot also for sailors. I always used the “bowline on a bight” when a wanted a heavy loaded loop in the middle of a rope. The butterfly uses way less rope, is way faster and easier to tie, is more stable in position on the rope and releases about as easy. There are many ways to tie it, but my favourite is this one:

Rick Snell

The Alpine Butterfly knot can occasionally be a real blessing if you’ve got yourself in a situation with only one hand free and you need a loop to clip into on a running line. I find having two hands free when you need them happens less often than one might hope! Check out this video.

Charles Starke

Evans Starzinger invented a knot he calls the estar.
It works extremely well.

Ed Finn

A complete article and 14 comments
On the lowly “bowline knot”
We must be:
a)hard core sailors,
b)obsessive compulsive
c) focused on details
d) desperate
e) all of the above


Hmm. I’ve never even thought about this detail.
(Grabs the nearest thing, a phone charger cable….)
Yeah, I tie it with the tail on the inside.
Now I need to untie my phone charger.
Thanks, John 😉

Ed finn

I was just trying to lighten up the day
with some humor. I guess I failed to communicate that

e. Good choice

Miami Phillips

At 60 I learned the outboard priming bulb is supposed to be held vertically (arrow up) as there are two check valves in the bulb.

Sheesh. It always has worked any way I have held it in the last 5 decades!

Simon Wirth

Hei John
I actually learned two different names for this two versions. I was told (don’t remember by whoem 🙁 ) to use the inside version for the sheets, because that version is round and can’t snagg on something like the outside version can. I also learned that the sailing schools in Switzerland don’t agree on what knot to use where and what is essential, so knots is allways a topic around here.


The rabbit goes around the tree and down the hole in this 59 page article about bowline theory and practice:


Hello – does anyone have any advice on how to ‘break open’ a bowline that has set rock hard? We inherited all the gear on 2nd-hand yacht we bought last year. As part of laying up I am now trying to clean up all our running rigging lines. On one halyard the bowline has been tied very neatly (inside, as per this article), very close to the shackle, has gone green and despite soaking overnight and using a marlinspike I cannot get it to open up. I want to take the shackle off so that I can thoroughly clean the rope.
Many thanks

Eric Klem

Hi Diana,

Bowlines like sheet bends and a few other knots can have their back broken to open them up. Once you get the technique down, you can undo a bowline that has been under immense load. To do this:

-Make sure that there is no load on the line.
-Hold the knot so that the standing end is up and the bitter end exits the knot down and towards you as opposed to down and away (actually any orientation works but this is a good one and makes the rest easier to describe).
-Hold the bottom of the knot firmly.
-Take the vertical loop that goes over the standing end and push it away from you, this is actually breaking the back. If you examine a bowline, you will find that this vertical loop (for people with the rabbit analogy this is the part that goes around the tree) is not straight and therefore is longer than strictly necessary with no load on the knot although it ends up this way when under load. Basically, you are straightening out this section which gives you slack in that portion of the knot. Sometimes a spike will help you in getting this moving either by getting extra leverage to push the loop away or actually pulling a bit in from the working end while also pulling the loop away. Once you have succeeded at this, the rest of the knot will come apart pretty quickly.

One other thought is that if you need to replace the line, a knife might be a better option and even if you don’t need to do that, sometimes it is wiser to put a whipping on and cut the line near the knot so that you tie into a new part of the line.



Hi Eric & John
Thanks so much for replying. Sadly you have only told me what I already know but isn’t working because the rope is so hard nothing will move at all. And because it’s very tight, with a shackle sitting in it, there’s not much to grasp. I think you have just confirmed what I had begun to suspect – it’s time to cut it! If I manage to free it I’ll let you know!
Best wishes