Step-by-Step Instructions for Tying a Sailor's Bowline Knot

Friends sailing on sunset sailboat
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Centuries old, the bowline knot is one of the most commonly used ways of tying a rope. By definition, a bowline knot is a knot used to form a fixed loop at the end of a rope. Traditionally used by sailors, the bowline knot is secure and strong, yet it is easy to both tie and untie. With it, you can tie a line (rope) in a loop around anything else to anchor the line. The bowline is not only strong and secure but is easy to break loose later, even when pulled tight under a load. 

It has many uses but is commonly used to attach a mooring line to a post or ring. It is also used in rescue operations and wilderness survival.

There are hundreds of types of bowline knots, including the enhanced bowline for a slippery line, and there are alternate ways to tie a traditional bowline knot favored by sailors. If you are learning to tie a bowline knot for the first time, start with the traditional knot and the most popular way to tie it. Once you learn how to tie a bowline and get some practice, you’ll never forget it.

A fun way to learn the steps for tying a bowline knot uses the “rabbit in a hole” memory aid.

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Start with a Small Loop and a Large Loop

Bowline Step 1
Photo © Kate Derrick.

Begin by forming a little loop (the rabbit hole) by crossing the line over itself as shown here.

Note: The big loop to the right will be the finished loop when the knot is tied. (Once you have learned the knot, practice tying that loop around something like a rail or stanchion on your boat.)

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Bring the End Up Through the Small Loop

Bowline Step 2
Photo © Kate Derrick.

The rabbit comes out of its hole.

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Bring the End Under the Standing Line

Bowline Step 3
Photo © Kate Derrick.

The rabbit runs under the log.

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Bring the End Back Over the Standing Line

Bowline Step 4
Photo © Kate Derrick.

The rabbit jumps back over the log headed back for its hole.

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Bring the End Back Through the Small Loop

Bowline Step 5
Photo © Kate Derrick.

The rabbit dives back into its hole.

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Pull the Knot Tight

Bowline Step 6
Photo © Kate Derrick.

The rabbit disappears into its hole and the hole closes up.

And there you have it. Traditionally sailors practiced this knot until they could do it with their eyes closed or hands behind their back—you never know what conditions you may find yourself in when you have to lash a line securely.

A bowline usually holds well, but with modern ropes made of slippery synthetic materials, the knot can occasionally slip. For a more secure version, try the enhanced bowline.

Although very useful, the bowline knot is not appropriate for all situations. After mastering the bowline knot, add other basic sailing knots as well as multi-use knots to your knot-tying arsenal.