I suppose I am a member of the club whose slogan is, "Keep it simple, stupid!" KISS is a helpful guide in a world where a lot of time is spent trying to either re-invent the wheel or obstruct it from its appointed duty. Nautical wool-gathering typically occurs when we plan the perfect boat. A friend of mine who crewed in an Olympic racing class reported that the boat was so ingeniously set up that the outhaul could be easily adjusted from the fully extended hiking position. And that was the problem, he said. The system of blocks and lines that made this happen was so large that it got in the way of the jib sheet, which was almost un-trimmable.
Priorities—that's the issue. This is where the good old navy concept of forehandedness is helpful. A cautious state of mind alerts you to the conditions under which problems are likely to occur, with small problems quickly piling up into big ones. And forehandedness also has the sweet effect of inspiring clear, practical thinking.
One of the conditions that affects problems is the time of day. Jim McCurdy—that talented, humorous, and much-mourned yacht designer and shipmate—was once asked when a boat was likely to get into trouble. "At 3:00 o'clock in the morning!," was his answer, and he was dead right. That's why essential gear should be easy to operate when the operator is as good as blind. If every shackle is installed so it is opened from the starboard side, no time is lost fumbling around in the dark for shackle pins and flashlights.
If the onboard gremlins come out at night, they run rampant in rough weather. When I experienced my first violent capsize in a dinghy, I was astonished to discover that the rush of water had unwound all the circular "ring-ding" type cotter pins and left the bilge full of loose fittings. After that, I replaced all the ring-dings with straight cotter pins. As for the force of a hard breeze, what Joseph Conrad wrote about human community—"This is the disintegrating power of a great wind: it isolates one from one's kind"—also applies to gear. One day on a sturdy cruising boat, a flogging jib quickly shook out the two bowlines holding the sheets and left the jib flagging in the breeze. Then came the time when the bowlines securing the reefing lines to the boom untied themselves. Futility is watching from a 20-foot distance as the bitter end of a knot inexorably creeps in the wrong direction until the knot's turns unwind and vanish.
These and many similar experiences almost drained me of my faith in the bowline. Since then, I've found better ways to tie the bowline and fewer places to tie it. When a SailNet poll asked you, our readers, about bowlines, almost everybody said they knew how to tie one. That's fine. The next questions are "how" and "where." This fine knot has its uses, but there are three qualifications:
First, tie it so the loop (the distance between the knot and the fitting it holds) is as small as possible. This will keep the knot from shaking more than it has to.
Second, the tail (the leftover line toward the bitter end) should be long—at least six inches—so the knot will not completely undo itself as it slips (and it will slip). For added security, stick the bitter end back into the knot and pull it tight.
Third, use the bowline only when you tie a loop that you will have to untie soon. The bowline is designed to be easily loosened. It has been passed down from the days when ropes were made of the gnarly, stretchy, natural-fiber manila, in which most knots locked up so tight that pliers or knives were required to free them. For the same reason, the stopper knot of choice was the figure-8. Today's synthetic lines will shake out a figure-8 even faster than a loose bowline and a simple overhand knot is the best stopper. All this makes the bowline a good knot to use (with the cautions noted above) when securing a sheet into a jib clew or making a loop in the end of a temporary docking line.
More permanent chores are the job of a fisherman's bend or buntline hitch. Many people are familiar with the fisherman's bend, also known as the anchor bend because it's fine for tying a rope rode to an anchor or a length of chain. The knot is shown here in Mark Smith's drawing from the new edition of The Annapolis Book of Seamanship. Note how, unlike the bowline, the bitter end passes between the knot and the ring. As the knot tightens, it squeezes the bitter end like a vise. The fisherman's bend is an excellent permanent or semi-permanent knot for a crucial piece of gear that is untied rarely—like an anchor rode or the end of a Lifesling's line where it is secured to a deck fitting. I believe a fisherman's bend will withstand crawling lobsters and swimmers' feet far better than a bowline. This knot is hard to untie—that's its strength. In fact, after a summer's use, the bend in an anchor has to be cut and retied. This is not a bad thing, since slicing it off eliminates the worn spot.
The problem with the fisherman's bend is that, like the bowline, it's large and bulky. This is where the buntline hitch comes in. As you can see in the drawings, it's a compact knot that looks like an inside-out double half-hitch or clove hitch. The final loop is inside the first loop (not outside as in a clove hitch). It also leaves the end squeezed, as in the fisherman's bend.
The buntline hitch gains its name and reputation from square rigger duty. To help in furling the sail's bunt (belly), a long line was tied into a cringle (loop) in the boltrope on the foot. The line was led aloft to the masthead and then through a block down to the deck, where it was pulled to gather the sail as sheets were eased. The knot securing this line to the cringle had to be small, so there was little chafe, and also firmly knotted—it was too far aloft to be retied if it opened up.
So where the buntline met the bunt, security was a far higher priority than facility. Several parts of modern rigging have the same requirements and that is why a buntline hitch is excellent for tying a rope halyard to a shackle or tying a reefing line, lazy jack, or topping lift to the boom. You'll find other uses for this terrific little knot. It takes a little practice to learn how to tie, but in time it will be as second-nature to you as the good old—and not always trustworthy—bowline.