Practical: Make your own folding ladder

We love to snorkel but quickly discovered that if we were not swimming off the back of the boat, getting back into the tender from the water was not easy for any of us. The kids did not have as much trouble as we did but it wasn’t easy.

So to help us get back on board the tender I made a set of folding steps so we could keep them in the tender all the time.

We have tried using some of our friends’ hard frame stepladders and, while they work, they are difficult to store on board. Other cruisers we know have had different styles of commercially made folding/sliding ladders and we have found these work in much the same way as the ones we made.

The one thing you will need to do is practice using the ladder, it is not easy at first but once you get the hang of it you should not have any problems. We have had people ranging in age from children to adults in their late sixties use our ladder successfully first time after a little patient practice.

Previously we had a plastic folding ladder that unfortunately failed a couple of months after purchase; the rungs broke while in use, unceremoniously dropping the user, i.e. me, back into the water. An annoying problem with this ladder was it only had three rungs and we found the rounded rungs were hard on the soles of the feet. Off we went to the chandler to check out the ready-made folding ladders and got a bit of a shock due to the prices being asked for a simple boarding ladder. The other thing we did not like was the use of tube for the treads, which would be hard on the arches of the feet during use.

Making a folding rope ladder is a fairly straight forward wood working job that can be completed in a matter of hours. We had most of the items to make the steps on board, the Tasmanian Oak was left over from another job and we already had the rope in the rope locker.

We collected the last of our supplies in our little sedan from the local hardware store; we just cut the conduit in half and the ends protruded from the car window on the drive home. If you would like a set of step treads that are even easier on the feet, the use of hardwood decking would be a great choice with wider treads. Some brands are 90 millimetre wide and come with rounded edges and some have textured surfaces.

Why make a set of fold up steps for the tender?

While this may appear off subject in a how-to article, before and after completing our steps I heard a few horror stories of people in trouble because they could not get back into their tender. So I started to think that the reality is that it is not that easy for most of us to get back on to a yacht or tender from the water.

It does not take much to end up in the water during a transfer and I have talked to two people who have fallen
in transferring supplies. Several years ago my father was out fishing in his tinny and rescued a man who had
fallen out of his tender while trying to climb aboard his yacht. In the process of trying to get back into his tender he had exhausted himself and was in a bad way. He was too big to help drag back up into his tender or up on to my father’s boat and he was in no condition to help himself. So the only option left at the time was to tow his tender as he clung on, a quarter
mile to the shore where they called an ambulance.

There are sad stories of people dying after simply falling into the water while trying to board their yacht from the tender. During the struggle to get back into the tender they have suffered a heart attack, exhausted themselves and drowned or succumbed to hypothermia.

While it is a good idea to make a ladder to climb back into the tender you need to be sure your tender is sufficiently stable to allow a person to reboard it from the water. I know a lot are not stable enough and for every tender design there are a myriad of pros and cons for the design. So, if you have a ‘tender’ tender, perhaps a fold-up rope ladder with a quick release pull cord hanging near water level on the back of the yacht might be the order of the day. Really it is going to cost you less than thirty dollars and perhaps less if you go into your rope locker and have a look in your timber stash.

Let’s do it

The material pictured above is for a ladder with five step treads. You can shorten or lengthen the length of the ladder by increasing/decreasing the number of treads and rope easily. I would not, however, go too long with this type of ladder as it may be hard to control.

Using a square and tape measure, mark and cut the timber length into 300mm long treads.

Find the centre of the tread width and mark with a pencil, measure in 20mm from each end and mark for drilling. As a tip: I will always drill a 3mm pilot hole in hardwood to stop the bit moving when cutting the larger hole. I use a spade wood drilling bit for a cleaner cut because a spiral cut high speed steel bit usually creates a tear-out at the top of the hole. Always use a backing board under the board being drilled to stop tear-out on the bottom when the bit cuts through.

When all the timber is marked, drill the 10mm holes in the treads. If you have a countersink bit, the holes’ edges can be cleaned and rounded to assist when threading through the rope later.

From the 20mm conduit, cut eight 200mm long tubes, remove the burs and saw marks with sanding paper 80
to 100 grit.

Now the dirty bit, remove the sharp edges from the timber with a wood plane, chisel or bastard file, or you could have a bit of a work out and do it with the sanding paper. If you use rounded edge deck timber for treads, half the clean-up job is done and you just need to clean up the cut ends.

Now is the time to apply a finish if you want, oil varnish or even solid painted colour will all work; we left ours bare, mainly due to being impatient and wanting to use them. If coated you may have problems with the treads becoming slippery when wet; an application of grit into the painted surface should remedy this.

To assemble the ladder, thread the rope through a tread then through a piece of conduit then into the next tread and repeat until you have used the five treads. Repeat the process on the other side, then to finish place the large stainless steel washer over the rope ends on both sides and tie a figure eight knot.

Then you can lift the steps and find the centre of the rope loop at the top of the treads. This can be knotted to form an eye for a shackle, the line may be cut if you require two anchor points. We did not do anything with this excess and thread it into an eye on the tender and use a round turn and two half hitches to secure it.

Do not cut the excess rope off, or knot above the treads, until you have folded them up as shown here and know how much rope is required to do that. Folding and then rolling the stepladder into a tight pack, you can finally secure with a bungy cord for storage in your tender.

How to use

To use the ladder from the tender, secure the ladder rope to the opposite side of the tender. This will ensure you will have a handhold when using the ladder as you get higher up the rungs. If you cannot secure the ladder to the opposite side perhaps have a knotted line for use as a handhold secured to the opposite of the tender.

This is the tricky bit that will need practice. Place both feet on the bottom tread and, while gripping the rope where it goes over the tender, straighten your body until you are standing. At first your feet will want to stay on the tread and go under the tender, but with a little practice you will be able to straighten up and stand vertically.

Continue to grip the rope on the top of the ladder as you climb the rungs and just keep stepping up one rung at a time until you can climb into the tender.

Bruce Nicholson
M.O.S.S Australia
Race Yachts
M.O.S.S Australia
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