A while back, we ran a review of a Union 36, and the opening photo of the boat featured a unique folding ladder that I hadn’t seen before. The ladder, instead of hanging vertically, folded out at a comfortable angle in a way that seemed—at least in the photo—pretty practical for routine boarding. I was curious how it worked in bouncy weather, and the owner of the boat, PS contributor Frank Lanier, assured me that the ladder, which came with the boat, was as good as any other he’d tried.
One potential concern: the way it stands off the hull might complicate a man-overboard recovery in choppy water, although I know of no ladder that handles that situation perfectly. Another problem: the maker—the American Ladder Corp., based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.—appeared to be out of business, and as far as I can tell, nothing currently on the market looks or works like Frank’s ladder.
The trend toward sugar-scoop transoms on sailboats has reduced the need for boarding ladders, but owners of older boats like the Union 36 will likely need to retro-fit one. Our last boarding ladder test was in December 2002. The test was carried out in partnership with our now defunct powerboat magazine Powerboat Reports, so several of the ladders were the type that hook over a gunwale-an installation that won't work on many sailboats.
The boat I cruised on for many years, Tosca, was a double-ender with the same sort of boarding complications as the Union 36. A stern boarding ladder didn’t work. For a couple of ladder-less months after we bought the boat, we just shimmied up the bobstay when we went swimming. I’d wind up in the hospital if I tried that today. (Getting old isn’t for wimps.)
Shocked at the prices for a stainless-steel ladder and wanting a permanent means of climbing aboard that a person in the water could use without assistance, we settled on a modification that you see on many catboats—folding steps drilled into the rudder (look for our Marshall 22 catboat review). In practice, this is a terrible solution for most modern boats (effectively ensuring water will get into your rudder) and a bad idea for most others. It worked for our wood-and-epoxy laminated, barn-door rudder, but it isn’t something I’d recommend—or do again.
We’ll be revisiting portable ladders in a future issue and are looking for suggestions of new products to review. If you have a ladder to recommend or a have criteria you think we should include when we look at ladders, let us know by posting a comment below and we’ll try to include it in our review. If you are just looking for a step for boarding dockside, there are several options available. And if you know where we might find a company who makes a ladder like Frank’s folding stairway, comment below or send us an e-mail.