If You Only Learn One

Tying the bowline

We might have said this before, but there’s beauty in knots. Like maths, they blend functionally and the abstract, and to connoisseurs they have a sort of music, with their patterns and seemingly endless possibilities. It’s a beauty mostly lost on me, but I did get an inkling of it once, almost twenty years ago, the day I learned the bowline.

The bowline is a true sailing knot, used on ships for centuries, millennia maybe – bowlines were thought to have been found on the rigging of ships belonging to Egyptian Pharaohs. I won’t get into the tedious business of using words to try to explain how they are tied, there’s plenty of diagrams and even videos out there to show how it’s done. But like all good knots, the bowline is deceptively simple, but extremely clever. Useful too. By creating a loop which can be tightened around an object, they’re a good choice for mooring a boat, tying the dog’s leash to something when you pop into the dairy, and even, according to the American Federal Aviation Administration, tying down small aircraft.

My father taught me this ancient knot, late one spring afternoon. I was standing about, at the edge of the gully where the willow grew, and where our swings hung, and he joined me with a handful of bale twine. Taking one he quickly worked it into a knot. It was a like a magic trick, the workings were there yet hidden at the same time. He told me that when he started working on fishing boats, one of the old timers had told him that if you only learned one knot than it better be a bowline. He did another one, slower this time, explaining as he went, and then he handed me a piece. It took me a long time to get it. I was always a slow learner with tasks like this – figuring out how to tell the time and tying my shoelaces seemed to take me longer than anyone else. Finally though, satisfied I had figured it out, he left me with that pile of bale twine. ‘I want to see a bowline in every one of those when I come back,’ he said.

Among the bowlines strengths are its tendency to tighten when pulled on and, not to be underrated, the ease with which it can be untied when you need your rope back. For these reasons its popularity has jumped from sailing to the more modern sport of rock climbing, and it’s there that the bowline has found its share of controversy.

Because, ancient and trusted as it is, the bowline is not flawless. There are a few things that users, especially those, dangling from a cliff face, should be aware of. The bowline has a tail, a length of rope poking from it. If left too short the tail can be accidently bumped out, undoing the knot. In critical situations, this tail is knotted again, but still plenty have come unstuck. In December 2012, climber Adam Roy, wrote an article for Outside magazine titled ‘Bye bye Bowline.’ He suggests that, ‘Regardless of what your crusty climbing partner says, using the bowline knot you learned in Boy Scouts to connect yourself to a rope is asking for trouble.’ A read of the comments his piece attracted, reveals the passion some have for their knots. There were statements in all caps. ‘Ridiculous on the face of it, arrives at all the wrong conclusions for all the wrong reasons,’ said one commentator. ‘A complete botch job,’ said another. The discussion was as tense and heated as any you might find on a blog about politics or pop music. This was a subject close to their hearts, and, since that spring afternoon, when I stood by the gully with a pile of bale twine at my feet, it’s even one close to a small part of my own.