Skills | Techniques & Best Practices

Boat Knots: Gripping Hitches

By Evans Starzinger
Published: June/July 2013

Gripping hitches transfer tension from one line to another. Learning one might save your boat someday. It will certainly save your back!

Illustration of an icicle hitch

You're anchored on a rope rode with the wind blowing hard when you decide to let more scope out, only to have the rode jam somewhere in the bowels of the anchor locker. You can't free the jam without taking the strain off the anchor line. Yet the anchor line is taut. So what would you do?

The classic solution is to tie another line to the anchor rode and take up the tension on it so you can free the jam. The gripping hitches used for this purpose are designed to grip the line and not slip under load. These hitches can be used in many useful applications, such as: to secure a snubber to an anchor chain, to hold mooring lines while the bitter end is moved between a cleat and a capstan, to remove a riding turn from a winch or windlass, to tension flag halyards, to secure an inner forestay to the mast when not in use, and so on.

The rolling hitch is the simplest and most common of the gripping hitches, and it has been used for millennia aboard seagoing vessels. It was developed for use on chain and large-diameter line with a great deal of friction — hemp or three-strand. On more modern line, which tends to be smaller in diameter and much more slippery, the rolling hitch often slips under load. It may also fail to hold on wire or on stainless steel tubing. For this reason, a variety of other hitches have been developed. These have the advantage of increased holding power, but they are more complicated to learn and to remember when they are needed, and some are difficult to undo after being tensioned up. The table below summarizes how three of these hitches compare and where you might want to use them.

Two tricks will help all of these hitches to grip. First, this is one of the few applications where old line is preferable to new. New line will usually have a soft and slippery finish while older line will have a harder and rougher feel that increases friction. Second, the gripper line should be smaller diameter than the line it’s trying to grip.

If I were to choose one of these hitches to learn and to use in just about every real-world situation, I'd pick the icicle hitch. It holds in every normal situation onboard, is actually easier to untie than the rolling hitch when used with line, and it never jams. But the other hitches have their places, and knowing more than one is smart.

Camparison of Rolling Hitches Chart
Click on table to enlarge

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