(This story appeared in the May-June 2020 issue of Scouting magazine.)
I love knots. There’s magic in taking a piece of rope and, with a few bends and turns, creating a remarkable structure that is as useful as it is attractive.
I’m also delighted to know that people sitting around campfires thousands of years ago taught knots to one another just as Scouts might today. Their world was different from ours, but the experience of forming knots — and many of the knots themselves — has changed little through the ages.
A Timeless Skill
Knots were essential for building homes, managing livestock and developing tools. By explorer Christopher Columbus’ time, a large ship might have several miles of rope on board. Knots made it possible to raise the masts, manage sails, hoist cargo and tend to hundreds of other necessary tasks while at sea.
Through the centuries, the best knots were easy to tie, stayed tied as long as they were being used, and were easy to untie. Exceptions include the water knot, used to tie a piece of rope or webbing into a very tight loop for rock climbing.
Today, knots play key roles in camping, mountaineering, sailing and dozens of other outdoor activities. They are indispensable in first aid, construction and for getting things done around the home. Something as simple as tying your shoelaces depends on knowing a knot (a half-hitch with bights forming the distinctive loops).
Learn the Ropes
There are certainly plenty of knots out there. The Ashley Book of Knots, published in 1944 and still the definitive resource on the subject, describes more than 3,800 knots and their variations. The BSA has whittled that down to a manageable seven knots required for rank advancement. A new Scout shows how to tie a square knot, two half-hitches and a taut-line hitch. Second Class Scouts add the sheet bend and bowline. First Class Scouts can also form a timber hitch and clove hitch.
Scouts who master those knots will have the skill to get them through just about anything requiring a rope — from tying up a package to helping with a backcountry rescue.
That’s where the Teaching EDGE method comes in, a concept that is the basis of a Tenderfoot requirement:
“Use the Teaching EDGE method to teach another person how to tie the square knot.”
Star Scouts aiming for Life rank are also asked to put the Teaching EDGE method to use.
For tying a knot, and for just about any other subject, begin by explaining the importance of the skill and how it is done. Next, demonstrate the method, going slowly and describing in detail what you are doing. Hand over the rope and guide the other person in tying the knot.
When the skill has been successfully passed along, enable by stepping back and letting the other person tie the knot as you offer support. If needed, Be Prepared to go back to demonstrating and guiding until you can enable again.
Helping Them Remember
Of course, learning knots just long enough to pass requirements is one thing. Our real goal should be helping Scouts make knot-tying automatic so they can use it with confidence for years to come. Here are some ways to make that happen:
- Set a good example as a leader by learning knots yourself and using them often. Tie each as if your life depended on it. Someday it might.
- Insist Scouts always use the right knot for the task, and take the time to tie it correctly. For example, use a taut-line hitch when setting up a tent, a bowline when forming a loop in the end of a rope and a clove hitch to start a square lashing.
- Provide Scouts with short pieces of cord to carry in their pockets. Encourage them to pull out their cords whenever they have a few spare moments in their day, and run through their knots.
- Have a knot rack in your Scout meeting room. Perhaps it can become a tradition for Scouts to tie their knots as they enter the room.
- Include knot-tying games designed so patrol members guide and enable one another to do their best.
Robert Birkby is author of three editions of The Boy Scout Handbook, two editions of the BSA’s Fieldbookand the newest edition of the Conservation Handbook. Find him at robertbirkby.com
Photos by W. Garth Dowling