The Common (And Controversial) Cleat Hitch

BoatUS Trailering Editors

Ask three boaters how to tie a cleat hitch and the debate is sure to follow.

A seasoned boater was at the dock showing a youngster how to tie a cleat hitch. While the young boater tried his hand at it, she felt a gentle tap on her shoulder. "That's not how it's done," said another boater standing nearby, adding, "you have to do a full turn around the cleat first." So who's right?

Photo of a Cleat Hitch Step 1

Let's start where everyone agrees:

The cleat hitch is the perfect knot for securing the boat to the dock while the tow vehicle is being parked. It's perfect for a fuel dock or a waterfront restaurant. It's also used to secure the rope rode or the snubber when anchoring. So long as there's a cleat, the cleat hitch makes sense.

OK, we're done with that.

The dispute arises over whether it is necessary to wrap the line completely around the base before crossing the cleat. Chapman's Piloting and Seamanship and the United States Power Squadrons don't teach it this way — they run the line around both horns and then cross over the cleat without putting a complete wrap around the base. This way large line can be made to fit on a small cleat, and the line can be cast off easily even if it is under load. But with slippery line or line whose diameter is small relative to the size of the cleat, the cleat hitch can slip until the bitter end pulls out of the half hitch and the line comes off the cleat. Chapman's does address this problem, but not by putting a full turn around the base of the cleat. Chapman Knots for Boaters by Brion Toss states, "With very slick line under heavy load, it may be necessary to add more figure-8 turns before making the half-hitch."

Wrapping the line around the base of the cleat before beginning the figure-8 solves the problem of slippage as well. Using this technique when cleating off the rope rode of large recreational boats that are anchored out for a day or longer will ensure the hitch doesn't slip and your expensive boat doesn't wander away when you’re not looking. But it can take a second or two longer to undo, and it does take some care when undoing it under load.

In fact, both approaches work, and the right answer depends upon the specifics of the cleat and line. Where the line is large relative to the cleat or where it has lots of friction (like 3-strand nylon), there's usually no need for extra measures to keep it from slipping. But where the line is small or extra slippery, adding that wrap around the base of the cleat will ensure that your line stays where you wanted it to.

The cleat-hitch proves its value every time a boat is secured to a dock or an anchor line to a deck. Maybe more important, because of this debate, every boater can choose what technique works best.

Despite the back and forth on this basic boating knot, here are some basics:

Step 1

It's important to wrap the dock line first around the farther cleat horn (in this case the right), then around the closer horn (on the left) before crossing over the cleat and beginning the figure 8.

Step 2

After making the first cross of the cleat with the line and going around the horn (on the right) a second time in a figure-8, make a half-hitch (or just flip the line) so the cleat is crossed again. Note the two parallel lines in the center and that the half-hitch continues the figure-8.

Step 3

Tighten as shown. The working end of the line (right) comes away from the cleat in the opposite direction from which it began.

Step 4

Any remaining length of line should be "flemished" so that it won’t trip anyone walking on the dock or tangle when leaving the dock. The same holds true if the cleat is onboard.

With Full Wrap

This is how the cleat hitch begins with a full wrap. The next steps are the same as shown above. 

This article was published in the Winter 2013 issue of Trailering Magazine.


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