The Five Kings of Marlinspike Seamanship

The Seamanship Kings knots

The seaman’s abilities are put to the test with the grace and speed with
which he turns the knot, bend, or hitch.

Few subjects seem more hotly debated by sailors than the subject of which knots you need to know.

Most of us might settle with the advice of a learned world cruiser or racer we know, but it oft en seems their counsel applies to their
unique vessel.

Better candidates might be those knots used across the board, which are practical for both power and sail and useful enough that they’re seen on most every type of commercial and recreational vessel.

Here’s how to tie the five kings of marlinspike.


Considered the king of knots for
lines that are always under load, cleat hitches serve as belaying points for heavily loaded sheets, halyards, docking lines, and anchor rodes.

We often have to partially undress the hitch under tension to spring a boat into a dock or veer anchor rode.

1. Touch the “far side” first. Always
start this hitch by pulling the line to the cleat horn farthest from the load. Then, loop the line around the cleat base, under and around the opposite horn. If under tension, make sure you stand on the far side, facing the load.

2. Make a figure eight. Wrap one full figure eight from horn to horn. It’s not necessary to make more than one.

3. Lock the half hitch to the lay.
Finish with a half hitch. The bitter
end should lie parallel alongside
the first hitch. Remove all slack.


It was another perfect November day for frostbiting—until that 25-knot gust struck out of nowhere!

With no time to release the mainsheet, I flipped the boat in shallow water, about 200 yards from shore. The tiny 14-footer
rolled 180 degrees before planting its mast firmly into the muddy bottom of Charleston Harbor.

The boat resisted every attempt to right her. As tempting as that lee shore looked, I decided to stick with the boat and wait it out.

It turned out to be a good decision.

I pulled myself up onto the boat’s whale-belly bottom, wrapped one arm around the centerboard, and waved like a fool with the other.

Since I was well outside the channel proper, no one saw me.

And it was getting colder by the
minute. Matter of fact, I was  quickly losing feeling in my submerged legs.

I prayed that help would arrive soon.

Finally I saw them, riding that glorious white thoroughbred with a flaming-red racing stripe.

Aye, with a bone in her teeth she was steaming dead for me!

They came alongside and asked me how I was. “Hi guys, thanks for stopping by!” was about all I could mutter between blue lips and chattering teeth.


They tossed me a hawser and I dove beneath the hull. Of course, there could only be one knot to tie around the boat’s mud-sucking spar: the bowline. They hauled me aboard and stowed me down in the warmth of the cabin to thaw. Gaz-
ing through the porthole, I saw the coxswain take a strain, and my lovely righted herself.

Free at last! The knot I used, the bowline, is the one I consider the king of knotland.

1. Bitter end on top. Start the bowline as shown. Face the standing part. Hold the standing part with your nondominant hand. With your other hand, loop the bitter end and place it on top of the standing part. Hold it in place with your palm facing down and your thumb underneath, as shown in the first illustration.

2. Twist away. Keep the line held in your nondominant hand a bit slack
(notice in the fi rst illustration, the nondominant hand allows slack in the standing part). With your other hand, twist your wrist away from you and at the same time, pass the bitter end under the bight to form a small loop (first and second illustration).

3. Loop around and through. Pass the bitter end around the standing part and back down into the small loop. Keep the bitter end 4 to 6 inches long to prevent the knot from untying when shocked.


Next to the bowline, the rolling hitch easily makes the list of most reliable knots.

I consider it the king of get-out-of-trouble knots. Tie this knot to a post, another line, or a rail, and you needn’t worry about slippage. Use it to take out a nasty override from a jammed sheet winch.

If you need to go aloft , use this hitch to secure your safety line.

Lash your fenders to a lifeline with a rolling hitch and they won’t slide.

Many variations exist, but I like the following version for security and simplicity.

Remember the steps as R-O-L-L:

R = roll
Roll those first two turns toward the load you want to lift .

O = overlap
Overlap the two turns with a hitch away from the load.

L = lash
Lash the hitch with one or two half hitches; remove all slack.

L = lower
Lower strain onto the hitch slowly to avoid slippage.


Tie it with one hand, hang a fender, toss two horizontal bights around a piling or bollard: the clove hitch is the king of temporary knots, and tying one is a must-have skill. This hitch needs a constant load or it will start to untie.

1. Round turn and a hitch. Take a full round turn around a rail, lifeline, or spar, and then pass a hitch over the turn.

2. Lock the hitch. Pass the bitter end under the hitch to fi nish off . Cinch tight by hauling on both ends.

3. Add some security. For more security, pass two or three half hitches around the standing part. Take out the slack and slide them up flush beneath your clove. This turns your clove hitch into a powerhouse hitch, capable of
holding your vessel securely in any berth.


The king of “joinery” is the double becket bend, also called the double sheet bend.

You can use two bowlines or the double becket bend to join two lines together.

Bowlines, however, take up more room and require more line than the double becket.

Use the double becket when joining two lines of different sizes or two lines of the same size in cases where two bowlines are impractical.

1. Larger line is the teardrop. Make a teardrop shape with the larger of
the two lines. Hold the teardrop with your non dominant hand, with the pointed side of the teardrop facing up.

2. Bend on the smaller line. Pass the smaller line through the back side of the teardrop and pull toward you. Form a loop with the smaller line, leaving 6 to 9 inches of bitter end. Pass the bitter end around the back of the teardrop and through the loop. Pass it a second time around the back of the teardrop and through the loop (see illustration).

3. Make it tight and compact. Pull on the standing parts and bitter ends of both lines. Get all the slack out to make the bend compact.