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In order to avoid overdosing readers on sexy mathematics i’ll introduce another theme in this blog at this stage; lessons on seamanship and boat handling.

But not to worry, there will be plenty more sexy maths in the next technical posts.


For all airplanes apart from the very lightest you are required by law to have lessons, flying hours and prove to someone who knows a thing or two about planes that you are up to it. For cars, it’s more or less the same.

For boats, as long as it’s for private use (in most places) you buy it, and you’re off!

I’m not saying that there should be legal restrictions imposed now, quite the contrary; the fact that you can build a boat in your backyard and go off sailing around the world without asking anyone whatsoever if that’s alright with them, is incredibly empowering and should not be restricted. Not now, not ever.

However, with great freedom also comes great responsibility, and i always strongly recommend that novices take the time effort and even extra money required to learn how to properly handle their boat. Operating a boat, especially a sailboat, is in the same category of skill level as flying an airplane. A motorboat may be simpler to operate than a sailboat, but is still far more dynamically complex than operating a car, due to it being on a fluid interface, not on un-moving land, and the standards ought to be just as high as for a car, too, because with even a small motorboat you can quite easily kill a bunch of people through a few moments of poor decisions.*

So often that one sees the most spectacular fails of seamanship, that Edward Allcard, the great British singlehander with the dry wit, coined a term for it; “Harbour sports”. Harbour sports is by far the best spectator sport that i know of, as we all stop what we’re doing, to observe -usually with much commentary and even gales of laughter- the latest seaside mash up of ineptitude and incompetence. Naturally, the competitors always take it very seriously. But unfortunately, these events stop being funny for everyone if and when they escalate to serious tragedy..

At any rate, there are two types of novice; those who take it seriously and go to the effort of learning how to properly use their new boat  with progressively more challenging sorties and exercises, and those who think they already know it all and unwittingly enroll themselves in a new kind of sport.

The former get respect.


So we’ll start with that most basic of things, tying the boat to the cleat at the dock. Seems too basic doesn’t it? Regrettably, i can walk down any dock and with one hundred per cent confidence say that almost no boat will be correctly tied. Oh, stop being so pedantic! But it is true, and when one considers how much money gets put into boats i would like to think that owners are at least a little bit concerned with the correct way to secure their property.

I must stress here that none of what i will say i have invented, rather these are all things that have been learnt the hard way over centuries and passed down. At some point though, a lot of it seems to have been forgotten.

In just a few minutes wandering the docks, i collected images the most shocking, of knot perversions. I was going to post them, for humour’s sake, but then decided not to on the odd chance one of the neighbouring yachts happen upon and recognise their own ties in my online mockery, which could be poor public relations. So instead i personally re-created a sanitized, moderate version of the archetypal monstrosity as “tied” by should know betters.

endles half hitches

If you don’t know how to tie a knot, tie a lot!

Hopefully, after reading on you will never commit such knotty crimes.

It is crucial to understand what a knot actually is; it must not only secure in the most reliable way possible, but must also be got free again. Not just got free, but got free no matter what and very quickly and easily.

Impossible to untie under strain cleat hitch


No doubt the worst possible case of tying to a cleat wrong is to start with the end, instead of starting by placing the standing part (the part that will become taut) around the cleat first. This guarantees that with any load the line is quite impossible to free. Unfortunately, when a bystander helpfully ties one af your lines at the dock, there is a fifty fifty chance of them doing it backwards


In the following image sequence i demonstrate the correct method of tying to a cleat. The boat, and thus the load, is off to the right of the frame. Note the end of the line and my hand is on the opposite side of the load from the cleat.

starting to tie onto cleat

First turn around the far side of the cleat.

The first turn is always around the furthest side of the cleat to the load. This gives the highest initial friction and makes a jam least likely.

mostly tied to cleat

Along one side and start crossing over

The line goes along the side of the cleat to under the opposite horn and the first crossover begins.

tying to cleat

Adding figure eights

From this point on, the line is brought under, crosses over, under, crosses over, in a figure eight pattern.

tying more to cleat

Some more figure eights..

This is already enough wraps.

finishing the cleat hitch

Finishing off with one half hitch.

To secure the end, one and only one, half hitch, preferably following the same direction pattern as the previous figure eights, gets made.

This is the only way to tie to a cleat. The only valid variations are in the number of wraps. This is a judgment call; enough to properly secure the load, but not many more either. Two wraps in most cases already does the job, more than four is almost always too many. It depends on the material of the cleat and the rope. The single half hitch at the end is optional, depending on the situation, but when mooring to a dock, it is definitely recommended. Omitting the half hitch is for situations where the speed of release is of particular importance, such as for example, on the mainsheet.

The reason for the first leg up the side of the cleat being straight, rather than crossing over straight away, is so that a maximum amount of friction will be produced in the initial full wrap around the cleat. It will be seen that in this way the rope’s first contact with itself will be in the opposite direction to the load, so the friction will be greatest. If one starts straight away with the crossover, or if one were to complete a full wrap all the way around with no crossover , in both those cases the entry and exit parts of the line would both be travelling in the same direction in the case of slippage. It’s an odd/even topological rule. Therefore, it must be along one side only straight and then the figure eight crossover loops.

There is also another reason to not do a full wrap straight along both sides of the cleat; the taut part of the line if it goes slack, can then ride up on top of that first wrap, pinching it once the load comes back on, making it impossible to untie.

The effect of the figure eights is to pull the rope away from the danger of getting trapped under the taut part to ensure that the line can always be let off whenever required.


It is absolutely astounding to me how such a simple yet important thing can so consistently be done wrong, that i must go over it again to try and impress the lesson here.

So let’s go over the first approach again with these clear illustrations from this useful knot tying site;

approach cleat

From the load to the cleat

wrong side cleat

The wrong side of the cleat

Never on this side.

correct side cleat

The correct side is first wrap around the far side to the load.

Always round the back of the cleat first.

However, i do not agree with the rather excessive amount of wraps illustrated in that site. Also he recommends certain ways of dealing with the excess line after the cleat. Note that this only applies for the boat end, one should never leave more than a meter or two of extra rope at the dock end, as it is simply an invitation for petty thieves to slice off the excess and walk off with it. Rope is dear; keep most of it on the boat where crew can keep better watch on it. Also never tie the very end of the line to the boat, as in a situation requiring to suddenly slack off a bit on the mooring lines, crew will not be able to, without delay.


Some more points;

When heaving a line to people trying to help on the dock, always assume they will do it wrong and make a point of re-tying each and every line. A typical thing also is of overly helpful people wanting to pull in and adjust the lines themselves at the dock end. Make it extremely clear that you only want the end tied and that you will do all the adjusting from your – the boat – end.

If tying onto a cleat that already has someone else’s line on it, it is poor form to try and cleat over their cleat hitch. Apart from being a bit dis-courteous, when they leave, they will be forced to untie your line and then when they retie (if you’re lucky) they will almost certainly do it wrong.

bowline on cleat

Bowline on cleat cannot be slipped up and off

Avoid this by tying under everyone else, if at all possible. It is usual for mooring cleats to have a hole in the middle which facilitates this. However, do not use a bowline. The bowline is a valid knot but belongs to the family of knots that cannot be untied if there is tension on it. Better to use one or two round turns and a clove hitch, which can always be freed. Like this;

two round turns and a clove hitch on cleat

Two round turns and a clove hitch on cleat

If instead of cleats there are bollards the correct way to place loops over it is as follows;

polite bollard technique

Correct multiple lines to the same bollard

In this way each person can unslip their line without disturbing any of the others.


Whenever i'm in a harbour