Photography by Edwina Stevenson
Know Your Lines
An ex-Mississippi River deckhand’s guide to all the knots, hitches, and linehandling techniques you’ll ever need to know.
Back when I was knee-high to a bollard, I landed a job as a deckhand on a Mississippi River tugboat called the Creole Tut, operated by a hardscrabble outfit called Creole Marine. The Tut pushed barges laden with fuel, propane, chemicals, and other dicey delicacies. She wasn’t a great ride from the standpoint of joy, or from the standpoint of sleep, or even from the standpoint of food, given that another deckhand and I were expected to also serve as cooks, a title that neither of us even remotely deserved. And, to tell the honest truth, she wasn’t a great ride from the standpoint of safety either.
But hey, the old girl had one thing going for her—she was a veritable school afloat when it came to learning how to quickly and accurately tie knots and hitches and efficiently deal with mooring, spring, and other lines. And her skipper, an irascible cajun named Clarence Toups, was the professor par excellence.
I’ve tried to summarize here a fair cross-section of all the stuff ol’ Capt. Toups taught me during those long months long ago. Absolutely everything’s served me well since, most likely because of its no-nonsense, hands-on, gotta-work-right-the-first-time nature. So take a look—see if you can benefit from what’s here. No matter how long you’ve been handling lines, chances are you may have developed a few bad habits or fallen prey to a few misunderstandings. Who hasn’t? And by the way—if you don’t fully understand something that appears in the text and photos on the following pages, try our corresponding video series (below). Watching the right video repeatedly may clarify things.
And just one more thing before we get started : I owned a 32-foot Grand Banks trawler for years and years and used only one type of cordage for mooring and spring lines the whole time—premium 3/4-inch, three-strand nylon. The stuff was expensive (roughly $2 per foot at the local marine store), strong, resilient, and hefty. In fact, it was so hefty that folks used to ask me, “Why use lines that are so darn thick? On such a small boat?” My response was always the same—sea conditions in most marinas can sometimes (albeit not often) become extreme. Yeah, cheaper, less beefy cordage might be fine much of the time, but what about a bad, bad storm? How’s that cut-rate, shrimpy cordage gonna fare then?
And finally, to those misguided lovers of double-braid line, I say that three-strand is way tougher in terms of long-term endurance. Moreover, it also resists absorbing prickly splinters from wooden docks, a problem that double braid is prone to. And heck, splicing an eye in double-braid ? Trust me, it’s infinitely more complicated than three-strand.
Clove Hitch for Fenders
Clove Hitch for Fenders Half Hitch
Reef Knot and Slippery Reef Knot
Easing a Line
Whipping a Line
What's a Knot, Bend, Hitch?
Although differences in meaning have faded over the years, you can still loosely differentiate as follows. When properly tied, a knot tends to retain its shape whether strain is applied or not. A bend is used to join two lines together and may lose its staying power if strain abates. And a hitch is typically tied around an object—should the object be removed, the hitch falls apart.