Messing About with Monkey Fists
by Paul Haynie
I am always amazed by the strange trivia that has survived in my brain from my childhood. For instance, I have a vivid memory of my father
mentioning, more than forty years ago, that when he had been in US Navy basic training during the waning days of WWII, he had been taught
to make a knot called a "Monkey Fist". He described the knot as something that put a knob on the end of a rope to make it easier to
throw. He had long since forgotten how to make the knot, of course, but both the name and the concept fascinated me, and the conversation
stayed with me.
A few years ago my wife chose to cater to my growing boat mania by buying me a book on knots that included the instructions for the
Monkey Fist. I learned to form the knot, and being me, immediately started to experiment with it.
The basic Monkey fist is built with three turns, is hollow, and the working end of the rope exits the knot to form a doubled tail.
Something, ranging from lead foil to cork, is usually built into the center of the knot, in the interest of better serving its historic mission as the business end of a "heaving line".
With a bit of modification, however, another use presents itself. In a day when braided rope is the norm, most of the traditional rope end knots, which are formed from stranded rope, are impractical. By the simple expedient of knotting the working end of the rope and drawing it back into the knot, the Monkey Fist becomes a bulky and attractive rope end or stopper. Its biggest drawback in such a role is that the knot eats up a LOT of rope, on the order of 100 times the rope's thickness.
Another possibility is to use the Monkey Fist to swallow BOTH ends of a loop of rope, to form a sling. While the knot will be obvious, the rope ends will not be, which is always desirable.
Some examples (all formed from 3/16 braided line):
An ALMOST standard Monkey Fist, the only variation being that it is
built with four turns rather than three (the core I used was too big
to work well with only three turns), made up as a heaving line with
the working end of the line formed into a hangman's knot around the
A Monkey Fist sampler: A hollow two tailed knot, formed of only two
turns (the knot can be formed with a single turn, but the shape is
unrecognizable); a three turn single tailed knot, with a figure eight
pulled into the knot as a core; a five turn knot with a three turn
knot (just like the one at the other end of the line) as a core. There
are about six feet of rope in that five turn knot, all told.
A sail tie, formed from a three turn Monkey Fist with both ends of the
line joined with a Carrick Bend and pulled back into the knot. Toss
the Monkey Fist over the sail and boom, form the bight into a Lark's
Head, drop the Monkey Fist through the Lark's Head and tighten it, and
then pull the whole thing snug. More work than a bungee cord, but also
Finally, just because I am doing knots and want to show off, a five
strand Star Knot formed of 1/8 line, made to directions found in Hervey
Garrett Smith's "The Marlinspike Sailor". Very pretty, but useless.
The more diseased portions of my brain are urging me to make a
spherical sculpture consisting of 62 three, four and five plait Star
Knots, and requiring 120 two foot pieces of 1/8" line; so far I have
resisted the impulse.
And as a final thought: Remember, if you think very hard about boats
while you are doing it, it isn't Macrame, it's Marlinspike Seamanship.