I have never been ambitious enough to master a vast array of knots. There are plenty of books filled with detailed instructions and photos for scores of complicated hitches and bends, but in practice, there are only a few simple knots that I use regularly aboard my boats. Quick-release tension knots, which can be drawn very tight and released instantly even when under load, are an extremely useful part of my repertoire.
The tension knots I use are variations of the standard trucker’s hitch, which is used to secure loads on trucks or roof racks. Begin by forming a loop in the standing part of a line—a figure 8 on a bight works well. The trucker’s hitch often uses a slip knot that can be undone when it’s no longer needed, but for boat rigging, a permanent yet easily untied loop is better because for a line that has a single purpose you’ll want the loop to remain in the same place.
Next, take the working end of the line around an anchor point and bring it back to the loop. Pulling back on the working end after passing it through the loop creates a mechanical advantage that allows the line to be drawn very tight.
When you have the line as taut as you want it, pinch the working end of the line tightly where it wraps around the loop. With your other hand finish the knot with a slipped half hitch—a single half hitch with a bight rather than the tail of the line pulled through. Snug the hitch up by pulling the bight directly back toward the loop. If you pull in any other direction, you will lose some of the tension in the line.
This quick-release finish is especially useful on a small boat when you often have to act quickly, with one hand, or with cold fingers. The slipped half hitch can be released, even under extreme tension, simply by tugging the tail end of the line, which pulls the bight back through.
Variations on this system can be used to join two separate lines or the ends of a single line to create a very reliable high-tension attachment point. The downhaul for my balance lug rig is tied with a quick-release tension knot; the absence of blocks and fittings keeps things cheap and quiet, and tension is easy to achieve and adjust. I also use a tension knot as the parrel for the boom of my lugsail, allowing me to adjust the fore-and-aft position of the boom. A line tied off with a tension knot secures the mast in the partner, taking the place of a conventional mast gate.
Tension knots tied with short lengths of line attached to the boat’s hanging knees hold the oars tightly under the side decks, where they’re out of the way but ready for instant access when needed. The ridge line I use to hang a tarp for a boat tent for sleeping aboard runs from the rudderhead around the mast, then back to a loop to finish with a tension knot. I also use quick-release tension knots on the lines holding the edges of the tarp to the side decks. For securing loose gear or bags, tension knots are often a better solution than bungee cords, which can’t be custom fit and can be difficult to secure under tension. In spite of their plastic-coated hooks, they can mar varnish and dent soft wood.
There are lots of other jobs aboard the boat and in camp that can be performed well with a bit of line, and almost nothing that can’t be secured and easily released with simple quick-release tension knots. Use the money you save on blocks and fittings to extend your cruising season instead.
Tom Pamperin writes regularly for WoodenBoat. His first book, Jagular Goes Everywhere: (mis)Adventures in a $300 Sailboat, is available now at The WoodenBoat Store.
Note: The slip-knot loop of the trucker’s does come in handy when you use a line for a variety of purposes. The slip knot is easily undone with a tug on the line, but there is a a right way and a wrong way to tie it.
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