In Search of the Perfect Portable Boarding Ladder


Frank Lanier

Last year, we ran a review of a Union 36, and the opening photo of the boat featured a unique folding ladder that I hadnt 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 hed 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 Franks 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 wont work on many sailboats.

The boat I cruised on for many years, Tosca, was a double-ender with the same sort boarding of complications as the Union 36. A stern boarding ladder didnt work. For a couple of ladder-less months after we bought the boat, we just shimmied up the bobstay when we went swimming. Id wind up in the hospital if I tried that today. (Getting old isnt 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 November). 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 isnt something Id recommend-or do again.

Well 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 well try to include it in our review. And if you know where we might find a company who makes a ladder like Franks folding stairway, please post the contact info-or contact us here.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and his girlfriend Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


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