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How To Tie a Cleat Hitch Knot

The Cleat Hitch is a knot every mariner ought to know. While it’s got potential utility whenever hitching a rope to a T-post or similar structure, this is, all things considered, a pretty specific—if incredibly useful—nautical configuration: an ideal tie-around for a cleat, whether on a boat or on a dock.

There’s not much to the Cleat Hitch, really, but in inexperienced hands it can easily be mistakenly arranged—which can mean frustration in the form of a jammed knot—or secured with a locking hitch when it shouldn’t be, which depending on the situation can be disastrous.

How to Tie a Cleat Hitch

Cleat Hitch
Vector simple instructions for tying a Cleat hitch. Four steps. Best way to tie a boat to a dock. Isolated on white background.

We’ll get into a few variations, but first off let’s show the Cleat Hitch in its classic form, best secured with the line angled into it by about 10 degrees to reduce the likelihood of jamming. In this example, we’ll present the scenario of securing a boat to a dock cleat, though this same approach can be applied to tying a line from a dock to a boat cleat.

(1) Turn the line around the horn farthest from the load—i.e., with the cleat between you and the vessel being secured.

(2) Make a turn around the other horn of the cleat.

(3) Cross the line over the top of the cleat.

(4) Make several Figure 8 crossover turns around the horns.

(5) Finish the hitch by making an underhand loop, then slipping this over the horn nearest the vessel and cinching. This leaves the tail of the rope’s running end facing away and on a parallel plane to the standing end stretching back to the boat.

Now, it’s important to note that the last step in this example—the locking Half Hitch—isn’t always appropriate. Use that locking loop to “make fast” the docking line of a small vessel or certain halyards. When docking a large vessel, or whenever securing a sheet, omit the last step: using a Cleat Hitch to belay a line, in other words, so that it can be quickly undone. 

Tips Tying the Knot

  • A common mistake is to begin the Cleat Hitch with a turn around the near horn of the cleat. This opposite start to the knot encourages jamming.
  • Other ways to mistakenly configure a Cleat Hitch and set it up to jam include making a full round turn of the line around the base of the cleat rather than crossing over the top after making the initial turns around both horns, and making an overhand loop for the locking hitch.
  • When using modern nylon or other synthetic line, it’s a good idea to make multiple crossovers: more for heavier loads or stormier conditions, less for lighter crafts or more sheltered moorings. (Heads up: We’ll touch on this a bit more in the “History” section.)
  • If you have lots of slack rope on the running end’s tail, it’s common practice to arrange this on the dock (or the deck) in a Flemish coil to ward against tripping.

Variations on Tying the Knot

An alternative way to secure the Cleat Hitch that makes it fast while still ensuring it’s very quick to unload is by using a Slipper Hitch to “lock” the arrangement. In his excellent The Complete Sailor: Learning the Art of Sailing, David Seidman notes a Cleat Hitch that’s made fast with a Slipper Hitch is a good choice for halyards on smaller sailboats.

Advantages of This Knot

The Cleat Hitch is the best way in nearly all situations to attach a line to a cleat; we’re not exactly getting into rocket-science territory here. The hitch can be quickly tied and (so long as you avoid those aforementioned construction mistakes that increase the probability of jamming) quickly untied, and the making-fast versus belaying options give you a tie-down applicable for many kinds of lines and many sizes of vessels.

Whether in belaying form or the making-fast configuration with a locking Half Hitch or Slippery Hitch, you can readily tie the Cleat Hitch with one hand as well.

Disadvantages of the Knot

Because the Cleat Hitch is used so specifically, and tied slightly differently for different situations, it’s hard to really slap it with a “disadvantage”—aside from, perhaps, the limited applications outside seamanship. 

History of the Knot

The Cleat Hitch has, unsurprisingly, been long used; its history essentially runs parallel to the anchor it’s designed for (the cleat itself). 

The Ashley Book of Knots and some modern simplified illustrations of the Cleat Hitch show but one Figure 8 crossover (aka two “S” turns) before the final cinch, whether a belaying tug or a making-fast locking Half Hitch. This works with thick, heavier-duty rope, but these days most of us are going to be tying onto a cleat with thinner, springier synthetic rope, hence the ability (and, often enough, the need) to add more crossovers for a more secure hold.

Uses of the Knot

As we’ve already mentioned, the Cleat Hitch is mainly a nautical knot, used with an honest-to-goodness cleat to secure docking lines, sheets, halyards, towlines, anchor rodes, and the like. 

That said, you might break out the Cleat Hitch or a slightly switched-up version to hitch a rope to some manner of T-post, which might be useful in particular situations when rigging up a mainline for a shelter or stringing up other objects, or a makeshift clothesline. 

Related Knots

A variety of knots can conceivably be used to secure a watercraft to a tree, post, peg, or other cylindrical object, from the Anchor Bend (aka Fisherman’s Bend) to the Clove Hitch.

To Tie a Cleat Knot:

Make a loop around the cleat making sure to go under the horn of the cleat furthest from the load first.Cleat Knot Step 1
Once the loop around the cleat is done, cross over the top of the cleat and under the horn that you first went under.Cleat Knot Step 2
(In the opposite direction) Complete the hitch by making an underhand loop and hooking it on the second horn and pulling the hitch taught.Cleat Knot Step 3