Basic Sailboat Cleats Explained | Expert Advice

Cleats are fittings to which a line is secured, either temporarily or permanently.  We are going to explain the seven main cleat types found on sailboats, and some of their uses:

  • Horn Cleats
  • Self-Jamming Horn Cleats
  • Cam Cleats
  • Double Cam Cam Cleats
  • Clam Cleats
  • V Cleats
  • Lance Cleats


Horn Cleats

Primary Uses: Anchoring, mooring and docking a boat.  Also classically use on the mast to secure halyards.

Sizes: Line diameters: 3/32” – 2”+

Horn cleats are most commonly your deck cleats.  They are the strongest type of cleat, and the only type you should use for anchoring, mooring and docking a boat.

horn cleat

Typically they are through bolted to the boat’s deck with two bolts running through the cleat, then through the deck and secured with lock nuts below.  Given the huge loads these can be expected to take, reinforcing the deck where they are mounted and using backing plates where applicable is expected.

horn cleat

For cleats used for the heavy loads of mooring or anchoring’s, cleats that use four fasteners plate will better spread the load to the deck.

The majority of horn cleats will be open bases which allows you to pass a loop of line through the throat of the cleat.  Some specialty, low profile or utility cleats may have closed bases.

Horn cleats are made from many different materials.  For lighter loads, wood and nylon can be used for utility, but for heavy loads on the boat such as anchoring, mooring, and docking, aluminum or stainless steel is needed.

Galvanized steel is another material option, and used almost exclusively on docks and wharves.

In general terms, to choose the cleat length, it should be 1” (tip to tip) for every 1/16” of line diameter; and dock lines should be 1/8” in diameter for every 9 feet of boat length.  For example, if a boat is 45’ in length, it would require 5/8” dock lines.  Using 5/8” dock lines means the boat should have 10” cleats.  These sizing guidelines are the minimum, and upsizing line diameter and cleat sizes add an additional margin of safety.  Also, chocks and cleats need to be large enough to accommodate chafe gear and the doubling of lines for extreme weather events.  Also, if a cleat is dramatically too big for the line diameter, the line will not hold as well on the cleat and could slip, so don’t supersize your cleats.horn cleat


Self-Jamming Horn Cleats

Primary Uses: Loaded lines requiring quick cleating when adjusting.

Sizes: Line diameters: 1/4” – 1/2”

self jamming horn cleat

Self-jamming horn cleats work well with genoa sheets, topping lifts and reefing lines – loaded lines requiring quick cleating when adjusting.  One side of the base has a “V” or jamming shape to it that “locks” the line more quickly.  The cleat is mounted such that the line under load is lead the side without the “V” jam, then to the side with the “V” jam.  This single wrap around the base of the cleat locks the load of the line more quickly and makes completing the cleat hitch easier with the now much less loaded tail.  The cleat needs to be mounted such that the side without the “V” jam faces away from the loaded line (farthest away from the source of the load).  These will be made of aluminum or stainless steel.


Cam Cleats

Primary Uses: Frequently adjusted control lines and sheets with loads that can be handheld.  Also used on some higher loaded lines, as larger cam cleats can accommodate loads approaching 1000 lbs breaking strength.

Sizes: line diameters 3/32” – 5/8”

cam cleats

Ronstan Cam Cleats- 3 Sizes

Cam cleats make cleating and uncleating an easy single fluid motion.  The spring-loaded cams will automatically open and allow the line slide in between them as you pull a loaded line between them.  To uncleat, tension the line by hand while pulling it up and away from the cleat, and it will simply slide out of the cams.

Harken Cam Cleats – 3 Sizes

Cam cleats generally come in three sizes – not surprisingly, small, medium and large.  Each size has a small range of diameters it will works with, which will differ slightly from each manufacturer.  They will offer cleating for line diameters from 1/12” all the way up to 5/8”.

composite cam

Composite Cam Cleat

aluminum cam

Aluminum Cam

stainless cam

Stainless Steel Cam Cleat

Cam cleats are made from three types materials: composite, aluminum and stainless.  Composites (think reinforced high tech plastics) offer good long lasting performance.  Aluminum generally offers greater resistance to UV degradation over time and can be rebuilt (new ball bearings and plastic components), but they will be a little bit more expensive.  Stainless steel cam cleats are long-lasting and capable of holding high loads, but are much more expensive, and are more often found on superyachts.


The different accessories that can be added to cam cleats allow you to optimize them for a dedicated task.

rear fairlead

Rear fairleads can be metal or composite construction, and allow you to pull and cleat a line different angles.


Saddles can be metal or composite construction, and keep the line associated with the cleat when it is uncleated, and makes for fast recleating.

rope guides

Rope Guides will consist of a stainless steel wire held in place by an under cleat composite plate and redirect a line that is not fairly lead into the center of the cams.  It is meant for use with only light to moderately loaded lines.


Wedges allow you to adjust the angle of the cleat on a flat surface either backward or forward to better align the cam cleat with the loaded line, and create a fairlead.


Riser and Curved Surface Adapters either allow you to either mount a cam cleat to a curved surface or raise the cleat off of a flat surface to create better access or clearance.

*Illustrations courtesy of Ronstan


Double Cam Cam Cleat

Primary Uses: Two-speed mainsheet systems or where two lines need to be cleated in an area of minimal space.

Sizes: One size, for line diameters of 5/16” – 3/18”

double cam cleat

This is a unique solution when you want the convenience and performance of a cam cleat, but don’t have enough room to mount two separate cam cleats.  This is a space saver.  The center post has line gripping ridges, but is stationary, while one outside spring-loaded cams engage separately lead lines.


Clam Cleats

Primary Uses: Small control lines, hanging fenders, securing a lee cloth, utility applications.

Sizes: Generally four sizes of cleats, covering a line diameter range of 3/32” – 5/8”

A clam cleat holds line fast (cleated) between two stationary checks which have ridges.  The ridges face downward and towards the source of the load on the line.  The two checks and the ridges on them progressively get closer together the farther down you go from the top.  To cleat, the loaded line is pulled back and down into the cheeks, then released.  The load on the line will pull it into the cleat, thus cleating the line.  The more load on the line, the deeper the line is pulled into the cleat, and the more securely it is cleated.  Simple design, easy to use, but not as easy to uncleat a loaded line as with a cam cleat.


Below are some of the most popular cam cleats, with other, more specialized styles available.

Open clam cleats are easy to use and don’t keep the line captive when it is uncleated.

Side entry clam cleats are available either open on the right or left and in smaller sizes.  These cleats allow lines that are not fairly lead to be redirected into the cleat by the integral fairlead, and the ease of line remove out the side when it is uncleated.

Captive clam cleats are available either open on the right or left and in smaller sizes.  These cleats allow lines that are not fairly lead to be redirected into the cleat by the integral fairlead and keeps the line captive when it is uncleated, and ready to cleat again.

The closed becket clam cleat has a ‘tunnel’ under the body of the cleat that allows you to run the line under the cleat and dead-end with a knot when creating a 2:1 purchase.

Top roller fairlead clam cleats allow lines to enter from above, and redirects them into the cleat with a plain bearing sheave.

Bottom roller clam cleats allow lines to enter from below, and redirect them into the cleat with a plain bearing sheave.

Inline clam cleats are clam cleats mounted to a composite line brake.  They allow for adjustment without the use of tools and provide a 2:1 purchase anywhere along a line.

*Illustrations courtesy of Clamcleat


V Cleats

Primary Uses: Cleating small control or utility lines

Size: Generally available in one or two sizes, covering line diameters 1/8” – 1/4”





These are an old and simple design where the line is run permanently through the cleat.  They work well with soft small diameter line that can be pulled deep into the ‘V’ portion of the cleat line for good holding.  A firm line can be problematic, as it does not always get deep enough into the ‘V’ to create enough friction and can sometimes fall free.


Lance Cleats

Primary Uses: ‘Parking’ (cleating) a line temporarily.

Size: Available in two sizes, covering line diameters of 1/8” – 7/16”

lance cleat

This cleat has a single spring-loaded cam on one side, and a roller on the other.  They are available with the cam on either the right or left side.  The line is lead through the line permanently and can be pulled over into the cam and held until it can be secured with a cleat in another location on the boat.  Some small raced boats may mount on the mast with the spinnaker halyard run through it.  When the spinnaker is hoisted the bow person can pull the halyard over and into the cam until the line is cleated in the cockpit (tensioning the line from the cockpit will pull it free of the Lance cleat cam).


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2 Responses

  1. I’m so glad I found your website!!! You do an out standing job…thank you
    New to sailing 2 1/2 years I have a 1980 Catalina 22…..Mark

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