How to Tie a Bowline: Remember the Two Loops

A lot of people have tried and failed to learn how to tie a bowline, the most important knot in boating, and one of the most important knots anywhere. It’s too bad, but for some reason people freak out about it, as if it’s harder to tie than, say, a shoelace, which it isn’t.

Let’s stop the madness. And for now let’s skip over discussion of all a bowline can do, and how to tie it right- or left-handed, or how to tie it fast, or behind your back, and all that flashy stuff. But it is important to understand a little bit about what the knot does and how it’s constructed, because without being aware of those two things people tend to get off track when they try to tie it.

Figure out how big you want the Outer Loop to be, and make an Inner Loop where you want the knot. Pass the working end of the line up through the Inner Loop. If you were to keep pulling it all the way through, you would make the simplest of all knots – an overhand knot. But you’re not going to pull it all the way through.

A bowline is used to make a loop. That’s its sole purpose. The loop can go over a piling, or be tied through a ring, or put to a lot of other uses. It’s a very strong knot, and it works because the harder the loop is pulled, the tighter the knot becomes as it locks down on itself. But it can also be untied even after the loop has been under tremendous tension and the knot under tremendous pressure.

Now, here’s the thing. There are two loops involved in a bowline. First there’s the loop already mentioned – the one that goes over the piling and does the job you’re tying the bowline for in the first place. Let’s call that the Outer Loop. It can be as big or as small as you need it to be, depending on where you tie the knot. The second loop is the one you’re going to make in order to tie the knot itself. Let’s call this the Inner Loop. People often forget (or are never taught) to separate these two loops in their minds – again, one loop to tie the knot, and the other loop to do the job.

Pass the working end around the back of the standing part of the line and directly back through the Inner Loop – right through the hole it came out of. There are two ways you can go around the standing part. Go the way that lets the working end lie inside the Outer Loop when the knot is finished – it makes a mechanically stronger knot than if it lies on the outside.

If you look at the photos here and follow the captions, you can see how it all works. When you practice, remember the concept of Inner Loop and Outer Loop (or whatever you want to call them yourself). Tie the bowlines slowly. Tie them with the working end inside the Outer Loop (the correct knot), but also make a few with the working end on the outside of the loop, because it will help familiarize you with the mechanics of the knot.

Adjust the knot in relation to the final Outer Loop you want to make, then tighten it by holding the working end and the nearest side of the Outer Loop in one hand, and the standing part of the line in the other, and pulling opposite.

Here’s a demonstration on YouTube. Just remember, when you watch it, to note the difference between the loop used to make the knot and the loop the knot is making. Let me know in Comments if this Inner Loop / Outer Loop concept helps you with the bowline, and maybe next time we can look at a really fast way to tie it. And after that, we could cover the Carrick Bend, a truly ingenious construction of back-to-back bowlines, used (as the name suggests) to bend two lines of equal diameter together.