Learning The Ropes

An abiding rule with mariners is that rope becomes “line” when it comes on the boat. Is the christening of rope just a formal seamanship term? Not at all and here are reasons why. 

First, a quick history lesson. In the old sailing days, there were so many ropes on board that knowing their names, what they did and their location was essential to running the ship. Ropes (or lines) were functioning parts of hardware, such as rigging lines on pulleys that moved spars to the sails. 

On recreational boats, there two primary types of lines. Those are docking lines and anchor lines. Even though that’s simple enough, there are other things to consider when choosing which dock lines are right for your boat. Here are some pointers to help you decide. We’ve even thrown in some tips on care and use of these essential boating items. 


All about dock lines

There are two types of dock lines—transient and permanent, the latter of which never leaves the dock. Transient lines are used when your boat is away from its regular slip or mooring. The looped end is easily passed around a cleat or piling by someone on the dock, while the open end is adjusted onboard. There are dozens of combinations of diameters and lengths. Permanent dock lines must be protected from chafe, which is the damage caused by rubbing lines on gelcoat surfaces.


Dock line material

Dock lines should be made of nylon because of its strength, durability and stretch. Polypropylene rope degrades quickly in the sun, doesn’t have the needed stretch and has a low breaking strength. Low-stretch polyester lines transmit shock from waves, loading up and loosening deck cleats and hardware. 


Dock line types

There are three types of nylon rope used for dock lines. Three-strand is abrasion resistant, easy to splice, stretches more and is the most affordable. Double-braid is stronger and has about half the stretch. Double-braid is also easy to handle and provides superior abrasion resistance. 


Spring lines

Spring lines run diagonally forward or aft from the boat at a shallow enough angle to limit the boat's back-and-forth movement. Spring lines can be attached at the bow, stern or middle of the boat at the midship or spring cleats. 


Sizing up

Your dock line should have 1/8" of diameter for every 9' of boat. That means a 20' boat should use a minimum size of 3/8". For length, transient dock lines should be 2/3 of the boat length. Spring lines should be equal to boat length. At minimum, you should have one bow line, one stern line and two spring lines. 


Ready, aim, throw

Don’t be that guy that lobs the dock line to someone on the dock, only to have it fall short and land in the water. First, make two even coils in your dominant hand. Next, extend that hand, pointing it to the person and release. The idea is to aim and throw instead of lob and hope for the best. 


Tying up

The cleat hitch is the universally accepted means of tying a boat to the dock. The cleat hitch is easy and quick to secure and untie. Here is how to tie it. 

  • Take a turn around the base of the dock cleat, and then bring the line over the top of the cleat. 
  • Wrap the line back under the arm of the cleat opposite the first turn, then back over the top of the cleat
  • Wrap under the first arm a second time and then back over the top of the cleat, making a figure eight pattern over and around the cleat. 
  • Form an underhand loop knot and slip that loop over the arm of the cleat. 
  • Pull the free end tight. 


Dock line care

Dock lines are low maintenance, although you should use a simple brush to clear dirt buildup. A wise investment for permanent lines is chafe guards. Those provide a sacrificial surface that can smooth the friction without reducing breaking strength of the line. Docks will have eyebolts, rings or galvanized cleats where the dock lines are made fast. The type of hardware on the dock or piling determines the best type of dock line splice and chafe protection.


Find the rope you need for your boat at Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s Boating Centers. With 130 locations, there is sure to be a location near you. When visiting, you can be assured of the best customer service in the business, and the peace of mind of entrusting your boat to qualified professionals. 


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