The soft shackles I’ve seen in marine supply stores look like a great idea, but I’ve never been tempted to buy any despite the many advantages they have over their metal precursors. While they’re lighter and less prone to harm woodwork or people, won’t corrode or seize up, and don’t require tools to use, they are expensive and the high-tech Dyneema from which they are made seems out of place on a traditionally built wooden boat.

I’ve worked with Dyneema and its very slippery braided fibers require splicing and tying methods unlike anything I’ve seen in my well-used copy of Ashley’s Book of Knots. Then I discovered that there were ways to make soft shackles with ordinary cordage, so I made some. I found several different methods of tying them but there is only one I would trust in use on my boats.

The commercial Dyneema soft shackles have a stopper knot on one end and a small loop on the other formed by inserting one end of the hollow-braid line through the other. The loop can be cinched tight behind the stopper to keep it from slipping through, which is possible if there is no tension on the soft shackle and it gets shaken, say, by a flogging sail.

Photographs by the author

In addition to the hard braid, kernmantle, and soft solid braid cordage I’ve used, laid line works just as well.

I’ve made soft shackles in laid line, solid braid, and kernmantle cord in both 1/8″ and 3/8″ and they have all worked well using the same method. The stopper knot starts with a common slip knot (Ashley’s #43 Noose) and becomes a thick stopper knot (Ashley’s #526 Oysterman’s Stopper) by tucking the free end through the loop and cinching the loop around it. The loop on the other end of the soft stopper is folded back on itself to form a lark’s head (Ashley’s #5 Bale Sling Hitch) that is cinched around the stem of the stopper knot.

A short soft shackle connects my canoe’s spinnaker sheet lead to its deck-mounted pad-eye.

I’ve used small soft shackles to connect spinnaker sheet leads to pad-eyes on my decked canoe, an application where metal shackles are commonly used. I’ve also made soft shackles for the jibsheet leads on my sailing Whitehall where the open gunwale isn’t well suited to adding pad-eyes. Here, I made the soft shackles long enough to wrap around the inwale. In both instances, the soft shackles can twist to allow the sheaves to align with the sheets.

I’ll be looking for more uses for soft shackles. Sail stops are next. Indeed, wherever I need a loop of a fixed length, a soft shackle might be a good replacement for metal hardware or knot tying.

The length of line varies with the size of the soft shackle needed and the thickness of the line. The stopper knot takes up a good share of the line.

The stopper knot starts with a loop in the line’s ends.

A bight pushed through the loop creates a slip knot.

Snug the hitch at the base of the slip knot. The loop should be big enough to pass the ends of the line through. Note the end of one line peeking out from my thumb. There are long tail ends.

Bring the ends up to the loop.

Tuck the ends through the loop.

Cinch the slip knot tight around the tail ends. There may be some slack out through this stopper knot.

With the slack pulled out, the stopper knot forms a neat knob.

The back side of the stopper knot shows the knob surrounds the loop end of the shackle.

You can slip the shackles loop over the stopper knot and it will hold for some temporary uses. With my right hand, I’m getting ready to form the lark’s head, which will make the shackle very secure.

I’ve spread my thumb and index finger to begin the lark’s head.

Pinch thumb and index finger over the base of the loop.

The loop is slipped from the fingers and the lark’s head is formed.

Open the lark’s head wide enough for the stopper.

After the stopper is slipped through, the lark’s head is ready to be snugged.

The finished soft shackle is ready for use.



Christopher Cunningham is the editor of Small Boats.

You can share your tips and tricks of the trade with other Small Boats Magazine readers by sending us an email.