In Search of the Perfect Portable Boarding Ladder

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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.

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 writer-photographer 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.

28 COMMENTS

  1. No wonder I cannot find a decent ladder for my Tayana. Currently, I have to launch the dingy and board it to get out of the water.

  2. Have one.. Had it for 20 or more years. Great ladder, expanding ‘scissor’ type. The only issue with it is the lower section can and will puncture inflatables – care and rounding lower edges is required.

  3. The odd thing I’ve noticed about boarding ladders is that they do not protrude deep enough into the water to allow the swimmer to easily get at least one foot on a rung and then push up using their leg/s (unless they’re somewhat of a contortionist!) Instead, the designs seem to require the swimmer to anchor a foot on a ladder rung and then use their arms to haul themselves up to a vertical position from which they can then use their legs – even though the human thigh muscle is far more powerful than the biceps!

  4. On my Pacific Seacraft Crealock 34 her tall gunwales all around the boat make the traditional “hook style” boarding ladders work well. I have two: a folding 6 step from West Marine, and a short two step that I had a shop that makes stainless steel bow pulpits make for me. I use the two step to get in and out of my dinghy. I had that shop also modify the hooks on both ladders to rotate to fold flat when not being used. Makes stowing them much easier. The boat came with a stern mounted boarding ladder, but no opening in the push pit, plus with the dinghy davits and support braces for a wind generator mounting pole there was just too much stuff in the way back there to make the factory boarding ladder useful. I removed it. And when a black bear up in Lake Huron’s North Channel tried to board my boat, I was really glad there was no permanently mounted boarding ladder anymore. Unfortunately several other boats with a scoop transom discovered that those things also make it quite convenient for bears to board.

  5. The one in the above pic looks like a variation on this patent: https://patents.google.com/patent/US4733752A/en
    which actually references “American Ladder Corp” in the patent, as a related publication of the scissoring standoff concept: https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/pdfs/US4733752.pdf

    It seems to me that a scissor folding design could be an injury risk, unless there’s absolutely 100% guarantee of no possibility ofmovement/flex in those joints while your extremities are near the V joints when putting weight on the ladder….

  6. A related subject you might consider at the same time is dingy-boarding ladders. Few “age-challenged” folks are able to re-enter an inflatable dingy from the water without some sort of adjunct to assist them; a collapsible/detachable ladder of some sort would be a welcome addition to their dingy bag.

  7. We bought a 1970 Hinckley Pilot two years ago, and since both my wife and I are of an advanced age, we wanted a very sturdy boarding ladder. We had Hinckley custom-build it for us. It’s made of stainless steel with teak steps. It’s extra-long, so that it gives you a good footing when you’re in the water, and it hooks on to the genoa track, so it has a very secure attachment to the boat. But it cost us a bundle.

  8. I have a folding stainless steal 4 step ladder with flat steps on my CSY 44. It was made by a company in Minnesota. It was on my previous boat, a Jeanneau Gin Fizz 38. The bottom rung does go into the water. It make it a breeze getting in and out of the dinghy as it is mounted on the side where there is a lifeline opening
    Ernest M Kraus
    sv Magic Kingdom

  9. I use two ladders, a one step to board from the dinghy and a three step for swimmers. They are made from boards of suitable length about 6″ wide with a set of 4 holes, two at each end through which I pased a pair of old 1/2″ lines that cross under the lowest step and join about a foot above the upper step These are dropped over the cleats at the midship boarding gates or could be attached to the handrail along the edge of the deck house. Not being clever with knot spacing I simply lashed the boards at each hole to the line passing through with heavy sail twine. Being wide they are comfortable under foot and stable for 70+ sailors. They stow easily too. It was not hard to allow sufficient length to allow the lower step to go below the water but width is importantfor standoff at the turn of the bilge

  10. When I bought my current boat, which has pretty high freeboard, the first thing I did was take the expensive folding stainless steel ladder off and store it permanently behind my garage. (It’s for sale at a bargain price if anyone’s interested). It’s awkward, heavy, marks the hull, or deck if stored on deck, and not particularly secure or comfortable to use. I did what I’ve done with my other boats–took a standard small hull fender, turned it sideways, and put a short line through the eye on each end, tied a figure-eight knot on the short end of each as a stopper, and measured and cut each line to a length a little longer than the distance from the water to the railing, where I tie them off with a clove hitch. The “laddder” can be removed in a couple of seconds, or can be simply flipped inboard when not in use. It’s inexpensive, doesn’t mar the hull or deck, and is still useful as a spare fender or float for other purposes. (Horizontal fenders protect a hull much better if mooring to a piling or other protrusion.) Entering my mid-70s now I’m thinking of adding a second fender (laddder rung) maybe a foot above the first by tying a second set of figure-eight knots, making two shorter steps from tender to deck. Sometimes just spending money on a new gadget isn’t the best solution to a problem.

  11. I have a Herreshoff 12.5 Doughdish and would appreciate any advice on a small (collapsible if possible) ladder to climb aboard after a swim or man overboard drill.
    Thank you,
    Don Oliver

  12. Judith and I sail on the rivers off of the Chesapeake. We have a Catalina 30. Judith is a swimmer. In she goes. What she needs in a ladder is steps low enough to be standing upright on the bottom step while enough of her body is in the water, providing valuable support. The closer that the bottom step is to the surface, the more arm power is needed, coming from muscles considerably smaller than leg muscles. I would imagine that anyone who fell in dressed would need the same thing, especially if the water is not warm. As a rule, whenever either of us are on the boat at the dock alone, the ladder is lowered first thing.
    BTW neither of us are young, but falling in while clothed would be a challenge for anyone.

    • Copied my reply to a similar comment above: My Catalina 34 ladder is not long enough for my increasingly less flexible hips to negotiate and it is very hard to board without considerable arm effort. Last off season I created a home-made 2 step extension out of old double braided line with the end result looking like the number 8. The top loops inside itself wrapped around the lowest step and it provides two more steps with the line doubled providing a kinder surface for the bare foot to step on. It’s not perfect but is much better than without it and cost nothing but some time.

  13. I have a 5-year old version of the up-n-out ladder on my Bristol 39. https://scandiamarineproducts.com I suggest you look at it. I can be deployed from the water and extends out from the hull, making it an excellent MOB ladder. The design has been modified/improved since my purchase.

    I am a customer and have no affiliation with the firm.

  14. I am glad you are researching this subject. We have a Fuji 35 ketch & while we have folding stainless ladders incorporated into the life lines that does not help when I launch the dinghy from the stern davits. I have to climb over the stern and drop into the dinghy while hanging precarious from the davits. Then bring it around amidships to get my wife in from those steps. At age 83 & 80 we are finding that stressful sine we cruise &live in SE Alaska. Thrtr has to be a better way for me to get isotherm dinghy.

  15. Even some swimming pools are a bit ‘ladder challenged’ when it comes to folks who are not as nimble as they might wish. I enjoyed reading the responses here. I am inclined to think that a removable pool ladder, the likes of which I had on a trimaran once wouldn’t work. It might have to modified and you might have to modify, or add something on your hull. Its a problem solving exercise: ist this part o f the reason we own boats?

  16. Ignorance is bliss, but casts dearly. It is heartening to see folks taking safety seriously. As a pilot I have lost a couple of friends who took a casual approach to safety. While docking I have fallen between boat and dock a couple of times. It’s not easy getting out without a ladder.
    Every young Naval Architects should be thrown overboard before going near a drawing board.
    We just might get safe designs

  17. Oliver, you made me laugh but it’s a great suggestion – nothing better than firsthand experience to aid design!
    How many highly specced kitchens have you been in that are ergonomic nightmares to work in?

  18. We have a B40 and have been looking for a ladder solution. We have seen some that attach to the jib car track and fold up along the railing. We are concerned about damage to the ladder when along side a dock with tall pillars when coming alongside or leaving.

  19. Criteria for an effective boarding/swim ladder.
    1. Must have at least two rungs below the surface when deployed
    2. Should be easily deployed by a person in the water with no assistance
    3. Steps should be flat on top and at least 2″ wide
    4. Ideally steps should come out at an angle
    5. Steps should have a handrail
    6. Steps should allow on to climb up with flippers on

    At the 2018 US Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Hanse had a couple larger sailboats with the best swim ladders I :have ever seen.

  20. Criteria for an effective boarding ladder:
    1. Must have at least two rungs, preferably three, under water when deployed
    2. Should have flat steps, not rounded
    3. Should be easily deployed by a person in the water with no assistance
    4. Ideally it should rise at an angle with one or more hand rails.
    5. Ideally the steps should be at least 10″ wide to allow boarding with dive fins

    The best swim ladders I ever saw was on the larger Hanse sailboats at the US Sailboat

  21. I bought a traditional mahogany ladder at a flea market. It’s designed to hang vertically, but my San Juan 24 had the teeny quarter tonner transom with an outboard, so I rigged it to hang from the topsides to starboard. I cut flip-out mahogany stand offs to match hull curvature.

  22. I spent a year looking at ladder options including some custom models (that were pricey). I ended up going with a Garelick Model 19627 4 step telescoping ladder rated to 400 lbs on the transom of my 48′ Custom Bruce Marek. I made a stainless steel bracket to adapt the factory mount to my transom with the correct angle and end up with three (3) rungs in the water. It’s easy on/off and collapses for storage in a locker. Works well and it’s not in the way when not needed.

  23. Being a single hand sailor most of the time I too am looking for a ladder for my double ender. A sight e-trailer. com has a ladder that looks like the scissors ladder you are looking for. The Tork Lift Glow Step Camper Scissors Step is advertised for campers and is made of aluminum. Not sure it would work on a boat but you may want to give a look.

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