In a small open boat the sheet should never be made fast, says G Christopher Davies in Boat Sailing for Amateurs, and it is a good plan not to have any cleats handy as the temptation to belay it is almost irresistable…. This seems to me to be pretty sound advice and one of the first rules of safe sailing.
The boatsman of a hundred years ago had a clever way to belay his main sheet safely, or so he thought, and thereby save himself the tedium of hanging on to a straining sail. This was to make the sheet fast with a bow hitch. (pronounced bō not bow) His boat had a small hole or thimble bored through the main thwart down through which he could pass a loop of the sheet. Then he took a bight of the free line through the eye that appeared below the thwart and allowed the sheet to pull tight against this second loop. He could now hold the slack of the sheet in his hand. When he wanted, perhaps in an emergency, he could always give the sheet a sharp pull and the hitch under the thwart would fall away, much like a highwayman’s hitch, and the sail was free to shake. This was how the Exmouth pilot, Charles Carnell belayed the main sheet when he took a party of seven for a pleasure trip from Exmouth to Teignmouth on a blustery day in June 1909.
His boat was the fifteen foot pilot boat Bona, with lugsails fore and aft. She was said to be a safe vessel. On the return trip the Bona met with squally weather off the Parson and Clerk rocks. Pilot Carnell tugged at his bow hitch but somehow it had jammed in the hole and would not give. The boat heeled and took in water and keeled over and Carnell and six passengers, three of them little children, drowned. One man Frederick Hunt, an Exmouth carpenter, was rescued from the sea.
When, days later, the Bona was raised and brought ashore the main sheet was found still to be made fast, jammed tight below the thwart by the treacherous bow hitch.