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.

Enjoyed this article? Please share:

Meet the Author


John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

Members, login to comment. Not a member? Join Today

27 comments … add one
  • Dan Oct 14, 2015, 8:47 am

    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…

    • Kris Nov 1, 2015, 11:33 am

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

      • John Nov 1, 2015, 3:40 pm

        Hi Kris,

        Do you have any destruction testing data to back that up? I can perhaps see a slight strength gain, but 40%?

  • Hans Oct 14, 2015, 10:56 am

    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”. http://sailingsimplicity.com/the-knot-you-never-thought-you-needed/
    Well, the latter I knew for some time already, they are both very useful

    • Marc Dacey Oct 14, 2015, 1:11 pm

      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.

  • Adam Oct 14, 2015, 12:53 pm

    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!

  • ChrisW Oct 14, 2015, 2:13 pm

    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 Oct 15, 2015, 2:46 am

    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

  • Hans Oct 15, 2015, 3:35 am

    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.

    • John Oct 15, 2015, 11:08 am

      Hi Hans,

      That sounds like a great idea. I must try it. One question: doesn’t the snatch block run against the pole rather hard?

      • Hans Oct 16, 2015, 4:10 am

        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.

        • John Oct 16, 2015, 9:32 am

          Hi Hans,

          That make sense, now you point it out. I’m definitely going to try this, sounds like a really good idea and just the sort of thing that I hoped to inspire with this post.

  • Alex Oct 15, 2015, 4:40 am

    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.

    • Hans Oct 15, 2015, 8:02 am

      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.

    • John Oct 15, 2015, 11:06 am

      Hi Alex,

      Actually I disagree. Splicing those lines would mean that we would need to disassemble the sheaves they attach to every time we wanted to remove them. We strip the deck of all lines any time we are not using her for a period as this reduces sun damage, and the easier this is, the more likely we will do it.

      Also disagree about the need to be able to splice every line on the boat. I was once, a very long time ago, a sailmaker and rigger and I can tell you that doing really good strong splices in braid takes constant practice and that goes double for high tech braid. Therefore, when I need braid spliced I pay a good rigger to do it.

      The rest of the time I use knots.

      The only exception is that I do brummel splices in amsteel, because it is not safe to knot it.

      • Drew Frye Dec 1, 2015, 12:25 am

        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.

  • Lou Oct 15, 2015, 4:42 am

    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 Oct 15, 2015, 9:03 am

    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 Oct 17, 2015, 11:18 am

      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 Oct 15, 2015, 9:28 am

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

  • Ed Finn Oct 15, 2015, 3:49 pm

    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

    • John Oct 16, 2015, 9:29 am

      Hi Ed,

      I go with option e.

      Actually, my point was to highlight the benefits and fun of lifelong learning and the importance of being open minded about new and better ways to do things, but I guess I failed to communicate that.

  • Matt Oct 16, 2015, 12:23 pm

    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 Oct 16, 2015, 7:40 pm

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

    e. Good choice

    • John Oct 17, 2015, 8:19 am

      Hi Ed,

      Mission accomplished, you got a belly laugh out of me. Sometimes we take ourselves so damned seriously!

  • Miami Phillips Nov 1, 2015, 8:22 am

    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 Nov 16, 2015, 7:15 am

    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.

Please login, otherwise your comment won't display.

Leave a Comment

Please read our comment guidelines CLICK HERE