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The ties that bind: Knots

Several years ago, working in the lowland streams of Nova Scotia, I set a series of minnow traps into the brook and left them for the overnight set. It rained that night. Heavily. Returning to the stream next day I found it overflowing, brown, muddy, and roaring through the channel. Pulling in the lines of the traps I found, without exception, the traps destroyed and broken. But, the lines had held. The ropes and knots had anchored the traps despite the tremendous force of the water upon them. 

The ropes we use and the knots we tie when doing field work are important. We are often tying things in place: nets in a stream trying to hold them in place against a current; securing a boat to the shore so it does not drift away on an offshore wind; holding a load in place on the roof of our vehicle. Knotwork is an overlooked, and undervalued, skill for the field worker – yet is very important anytime we are securing gear against external forces. It can also be a source of pride when you can properly tie the appropriate knot for the conditions. For each knot has a purpose – there is no all-purpose knot.

If you look through a book on knots, and there are several excellent ones, you will see there is an amazing variety of these, and each has a different purpose. The one common feature to all recognized and valuable knots is this – they are easy to untie after having had a load placed on them. That is the key: not that they are easy to tie, but that they are easy to untie. This is what separates a knot from a tangle. How many times have you tied a knot and then struggled with freezing and cramped fingers to untie it, finally just cutting the rope in exasperation? With proper knots this does not happen.

Not only does every knot have its own purpose, but the various users of ropes have different commonly used knots. A commercial fisherman uses a separate suite of these than a mountain climber; those used by an outdoorsman differ from a sailor. I would like to introduce you to a group of knots that environmental technicians should have more than a passing acquaintance with. I cannot effectively teach how to tie these in a blog, as a good video, illustrations, or book is infinitely more useful than text, but, rather, I hope to encourage you to explore (and practice, practice, practice) these knots.

Reef (square) knot: Most everyone is introduced to this knot as a child. It excels at joining two pieces of line of equal diameter. It is, however, a weak knot when there is appreciable difference in diameter of the two pieces of rope being joined.

Sheet bend: A bend is the name for a knot that ties two pieces of rope together or ties rope back on itself. When joining two pieces of rope of unequal diameter, the sheet bend is the stronger knot. It appears at first blush similar to the reef knot, but the running end (the term for the end of rope moving through the knot; standing end is what we call the other end of the rope that hangs down to the floor) passes under itself before passing over the opposite rope (see arrow in photo). 

Bowline: The standard knot to secure a load against strain pulling on it, this is, in fact, a bend. Initially a confusing knot to tie, but with practice becomes second nature. When properly tied, the rope will break before this knot lets go. And when the load is taken off it is easy to untie. 

Timber hitch: A hitch is a knot that attaches the rope to an object (consider the ‘hitching post’ of western movies – attaching a horse via a hitch to a post). The timber hitch is an old knot from the forest industry, and is valuable for attaching a rope that is to be under load to a round object. The advantage of this knot is that you can pull parallel to the alignment of the log and the knot does not slip along the tree bole.

Tautline hitch: This hitch is adjustable to modify tautness of the line. A very useful knot for setting up tarps and tents where we want to adjust tension on the line. A tarp is typically held up with this hitch at one end and the timber hitch wrapped around a log at the other end.

Clove hitch: This is a workhorse of knots. It is a quickly tied knot around an object and holds well under moderate load. It is then easy to untie. 

All of these, and most other knots, can also be modified. They can be tied as slip knots which maintain their load bearing ability but make them easier to untie. They can be modified to be permanent if that is required, where they cannot be untied but must be cut (an example of this is the constrictor knot – a modification of the clove hitch). This, again, is why we rely on traditional and established knots rather than ‘granny knots’; we can modify them for our purposes which makes them very flexible.

Now these, are only six of the commonly used knots. There exist knots for all imaginable purposes – for heaving lines (monkeyfist); as stopper knots to prevent rope running through a small opening (stevedore’s knot); to shorten lengths of rope (sheepshank). People that use rope a great deal in their work quickly come to an appreciation of the elegance and beauty of the well tied knot and also the value of using the right knot for the job.

This is a skill you can develop with the simple tools of either a book or online resource describing the knots and a couple lengths of rope. It can be practiced while watching television or around a campfire. But it must be practiced, practiced, practiced. The knots are not difficult but you need to develop muscle memory so that your hands tie the knot. Then, every time you tie one, irrespective of the purpose, you will take pride in using the right knot, knowing the load is secure, and that you are continuing a long line of craftsmen using the tool to its maximum effectiveness and utility.

Sean Mitchell