Offshore Log: All Aboard!

When you own a double-ender, a midship swim ladder is the way to go. Tops-In-Quality worked with us to develop a simple, rather elegant ladder. We cant say as much for the Vetus ventilator that failed, or the many store-bought US flags weve watched fade and tatter.


A good swimming ladder is absolutely essential for cruising in tropical waters. Because our boat is a high-sided double-ender, we have never been able to find an off-the-shelf swim ladder that works for us, despite the dozens that are listed by the mail-order marine catalogs.

We turned to Marysville, Michigan manufacturer Tops-In-Quality, fabricators of stock and custom bow and stern rails, ladders, stanchions, and other tube-based stainless steel fittings, for a semi-custom ladder. This same company supplied a stern rail for our old yawl Hobnob 20 years ago, and custom-manufactured fiberglass-reinforced tall stanchions for Calypso three years ago.

Their ATFL folding amidships boarding ladder was the answer for us. This ladder is designed for semi-permanent mounting in a lifeline gate. It folds up in three sections to nest compactly, normally no higher than the lifelines. Various deck mount, toerail mount, and track mount options will accommodate any installation complication while leaving the ladder easy to remove. A detailed measuring diagram lets you provide details of the installation, such as flare, tumblehome, and mounting offset from the deck edge.

The standard ladder length of 56 is adequate for boats with up to about 40 of freeboard amidships. Because of our higher freeboard, we ordered a custom length of 66. Each additional 2 of length adds $10 to the base price.

The standard tread width of 14 is fine for virtually any installation, but you can order wider or narrower ladders.

The treads themselves deserve comment. The standard ladder comes with tubular stainless steel treads. Flat stainless rungs are an option. We would not recommend either of these. There are three other tread options, in increasing order of price: black snap-on PVC treads, gray screw-on PVC treads, and teak treads. The most expensive option-teak-adds about $62 to the base price. We selected gray PVC-a $55 option-because we have enough teak aboard to last us a lifetime. These treads have proven ideal.

We also specified the optional type 316 stainless tubing, since all grades of stainless are far more subject to oxidation-thats rust, in simple terms-in the tropics.

Our boarding ladder, mounted atop the bulwark, sticks slightly above the lifelines when folded up. Deck-mounted ladders will not have this problem. The ladder is lashed to the lifelines for security when we sail, but is left mounted in place.

The ladder works perfectly. Depending on the headsail sheet lead, it is sometimes slightly in the way, but not enough to be a major problem. In nice anchorages, we can swim off the boat without the hassle of putting the dinghy overboard to serve as a swim platform. I now have no excuse for not cleaning the bottom and prop regularly.

All this comes at a price. The standard 56 ladder costs about $463. Additional length, optional treads, and type 316 stainless-highly recommended, unless you sail in freshwater-can push the price up over $500.

Its been worth every penny.

Contact- Tops-In-Quality, 314 E. Huron Blvd., PO Box 148, Marysville, MI 48040; 810/364-7150, fax: 810/364-7925.

Broken Ventilator
A Vetus UFO1 deck vent on Calypsos tiny afterdeck (see top photo below), coupled to a Jabsco in-line blower, moves air through our engine box to feed the hard-working Perkins 4-108. One day we noticed a subtle change in the sound of the blower.

Hard experience has taught us that anything that sounds, looks or feels even remotely different from the way it did the day before is an indication of trouble. Sure enough, pulling the vent off the deck revealed that the tiny spot welds holding the stainless spray deflector to the stainless cover had broken, and the vent was now in two pieces. Yes, it still allowed air to flow, and most of the spray was still deflected, but a good solid dose of spray would definitely find its way to a place that was not meant to see saltwater.

A close look revealed the probable cause. The close fit between the deflector and the cover had trapped saltwater, which had gradually corroded the spot welds until they failed. Both the inside of the cover and the outside of the deflector showed significant oxidation-enough to break down the welds (bottom photo).

The field fix was to bolt the two pieces back together with a couple of machine screws bedded in whatever sealant was at hand.

Oh, Say, Can You See?
People who knew us back in the 60s would be astounded to discover that we have become flag-waving patriots in our middle age. Actually, its just that we believe that an American yacht operating in foreign waters should display the US flag…properly, and respectfully

To save wear and tear, we do not fly the flag at sea, but the minute we approach harbor-day or night-the flagstaff goes up on the stern. At anchor, we fly the flag from 0800 until local sunset.

The problem is simple: we are unwilling to fly a tattered, faded ensign, so we go through a lot of flags. They just don’t hold up. Typically, the blue field starts to fade after only a few weeks. Shortly before or after that, the stitching on the tail begins to let go, and its all downhill from there. The other problem we have had is the red stripes bleeding onto the rest of the flag if it is put away damp-and damp seems to be the operative word aboard a boat.

The flag shown in the picture is the West Marine house brand, but it is pretty representative of what we have found. In this case, the stitching of the tail has let go after only a few weeks of use.

From now on, we intend to take any flag we buy straight to a seamstress to have the tail sewn with multiple zigzag stitching, to at least forestall that particular problem.

If anyone knows a source of high-quality US flags in boat sizes whose colors do not fade or run and whose stitching does not unravel, we would be delighted to hear of it.

In the meantime, we have a lot of faded, tattered US flags, folded and stored, that we would like to dispose of properly. As neither Chapmans Boating Etiquette, Chapmans Piloting, nor the Annapolis Book of Seamanship gives instructions as to the proper disposal of worn-out US flags, we appeal to our readers for the answer in this day and age.

Nick Nicholson
Nick Nicholson is a boatbuilder, racing sailor, and circumnavigator. He began his career at Practical Sailor as an Associate Editor in 1979, and has been Editor-at-Large since he left full-time work in the early 1990s to finish building a 40’ cutter in his backyard, and subsequently sail it more than 40,000 bluewater miles. The voyages of Calypso were chronicled in the Offshore Log section of Practical Sailor during that circumnavigation. He has also raced from the US east coast to Bermuda more than 20 times, winning numerous navigator’s trophies in the process. In recent years, he has primarily worked as a race official and technical rules advisor in the Volvo Ocean Race and the America’s Cup. He also chairs the Technical Committee for the Newport Bermuda Race.


  1. I realize that this is an older article, but the issue of how to retire a U.S. flag is always timely. There is a lot of errant folklore about the “right” way to decommission a flag, but the U.S. Flag Code simply requires that it be done in a “dignified” manner. Most commonly this is accomplished by burning, preferably in a respectful atmosphere. Your local Boy Scout Troop will be more than pleased to take care of this for you.