Preferred knot to make fast to a rail? - SailNet Community

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Go Back   SailNet Community > Skills and Seamanship > Seamanship & Navigation
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Seamanship & Navigation Forum devoted to seamanship and navigation topics, including paper and electronic charting tools.


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Old 06-05-2008
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Preferred knot to make fast to a rail?

I've been debating with myself the last few weeks about the best way to tie up at a float which has low, wooden rails along the edge rather than cleats, and I am hoping folks here can shed some light on the proper technique, as I haven't found anything completely satisfactory yet.

I was using a conventional clove hitch, as is suggested with bollards, but that turns out to be a pain in the ass when you have much excess line, as you have to pass it beneath the rail a number of times to both make fast and let go. So I switched to a slipped bowline; easier to tie, stronger if anything, and quick to let go if one were compelled to leave in a hurry. But it's impossible to maintain tension on the line while tying it, which is sometimes a drawback.

But I've been looking around as I pass through various harbours and marinas and noticed that no one else seems to use either of these options. Some of the knots I can't identify, and predominantly what seems to be used is simply a great mass of overhand knots slapped on top of one another (with any leftover line left tangled about on top). This is true both of pleasure boats and fishing boats that I have seen.

Chapman's and the Annapolis Seamanship manual are both silent on the subject, presuming cleats or bollards in every instance.

Now, I've always understood the "shoelace" technique to be incorrect for two reasons: one, it's not as secure, and two, it's not easy to untie in a hurry. That's a very real concern to me; in addition to the ever present threat of fire (I think there has been an average of one major pier or marina fire a year in Puget Sound in the last five years) there are more prosaic concerns; I just helped land a 60+ foot motor yacht in high wind which was no picnic... he had a good open stretch to fit into, but the harbourmaster originally was wanting to sneak him into a barely big enough spot between a number of other boats, and let me tell you, if I had been one of them, I would have wanted the option of getting out of the way damn quick.

So, what's the consensus? Does anyone know the "proper" knot to use when tying up to floats with rails?
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Old 06-05-2008
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I've always doubled the line back to the cleats on our boat -- but I should add that I've never been tied up for long at one, so chafe was not a concern. Usually I only see that arrangement at a fuel dock, where we remain tied only briefly for pump-out, etc..

Will be interested to hear other solutions...
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Old 06-05-2008
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Another problem with the clove hitch is that it tends to come undone fairly easily if not under a constant load.

The real issue is that most knots or hitches that will hold fast to the rail will also be a PITA to untie. If you need to untie a line in a real hurry... USE A KNIFE.

What you should probably do is tie a round turn with two half-hitches to the rail, but adjust the line back on the boat, so that the working end that you're using on the dock is relatively short, and therefore, relatively easy to untie.

JRP's suggestion of doubling the line back to the cleat on the boat is also a good one, but presents more of a chafe hazard, since as the boat moves, the line will saw against the rail and chafe in that spot relatively quickly.
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knothead has a spectacular aura about knothead has a spectacular aura about knothead has a spectacular aura about
If the line is excessively long I would grab a bight in the standing part of the line and tie a clove hitch. Then, still using the bight, tie two half hitches around the standing part.
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I agree with SD, and pretty much agree with Knothead. One turn, or two, and a couple of half-hitches work just fine when you need the fastening to stay tight under load.
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Old 06-05-2008
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Ditto the above by nolatom.
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Thanks! I think Knothead's is my favorite so far... I'll give that a try.
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In the event of fire, cast off the line from the boat and get out of there. You risk getting roasted if you cast off from the shore.
If the rail is smooth, tying up to it will not be easy.
Do you have a picture?

In 20 years I have used 4 knots... reef, granny, bowline, and round turn and two half-hitches. One of them would hold you... I suspect the last one would do, with lots of round turns.
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I'll go with either SD or Knothead on this one, but would add that if you split some appropriately sized hose in a spiral cut, you can place it over a wooden rail (assuming that still gives you clearance to get the rope end under it) and then you won't chafe the brightwork.
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The rail is probably not brightwork, since it is mounted on a dock.
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You know what the first rule of sailing is? ...Love. You can learn all the math in the 'verse, but you take
a boat to the sea you don't love, she'll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps
her going when she oughta fall down, tells you she's hurting 'fore she keens. Makes her a home.

—Cpt. Mal Reynolds, Serenity (edited)

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