People pracice climbing onto a jon boat
People pracice climbing onto a jon boat

Ladder Lessons Learned

Foundation Findings #44 - March 2008

U.S. Coast Guard statistics show that the vast majority of boating fatalities occur on boats under 20 feet. In a number of cases, the victims drowned because they couldn't re-board their boats.

The BoatU.S. Foundation wanted to learn what ladders work best for self-rescue situations in small boats. On a beautiful late-summer day, Foundation staff spent nearly 10 hours testing boarding ladders with the help of 10 volunteers from BoatU.S. staff. Little did they know that they would be asked to perform over 200 re-boarding attempts over the course of one day. Needless to say, there were a lot of aching muscles the following morning.

Ladder Options

From single-step straps to five-step rope ladders, the range of styles available for small boats makes it easier than ever to find the right ladder to fit your boat. Our test boats represented three different boat designs to give our testers an opportunity to compare the performance of the ladders on each. A ladder that worked great on one boat often failed entirely on another. This highlights how important it is to choose your ladder carefully and test it to make sure you can use it on your boat before you find yourself in dire need of re-boarding assistance. Proving that the fanciest equipment isn't always the best, testers also tried rigging a re-boarding device themselves using a 10 ft length of 5/8" polyester line.

Though it was sometimes tricky to get the length right and tie a knot that would hold, many testers preferred using the line with one tester commenting:

"I would have chosen this over any of the products." Another tester underscored the importance of adjust-ability saying, "It wasn't anything fancy but I would trust that over buying something. If you take the time, you can customize it so it is right for you. Many of the store bought ladders you can't adjust."

a child uses a ladder to climb aboard a boat

Testing Protocol and Rating Criteria

All of the testing took place on a warm summer day in late August. Ten volunteer testers along with nine observers and support staff gathered at a YMCA Camp on the Rhode River in Edgewater, Md. The morning round of testing included the jon boat and the rigid inflatable boat (RIB), both tied up to larger support boats from which the observers could communicate with testers without interfering in the re-boarding tests. As support boats during the morning testing, we used a Shamrock and the Boston Whaler, which was used as a test boat later that day. One male and one female tester on each boat tested each ladder at least once. Many of the ladders required additional adjustments and ended up being tested multiple times. Some ladders were completely unusable and were not tested at all on one boat but were a perfect fit for another. For each test the ladders were rated on seven different criteria: set-up, retrieval, timing, ergonomics, capacity, fit for the boat type, and a comparison between the successes of men and women testers.

The observer asked each tester to rate the ladder on a scale from 1 to 5 (5 being the best score) for each of the following questions:

  • Was the use of the product obvious?
  • Was the product easy to retrieve and deploy?
  • Were the handholds and footholds conveniently placed?
  • Will it support a wet, fully clothed adult with no problem?
  • Overall was this a good product for this boat type?

Observers also gave ratings for each question based on their own observations. Each test was timed from when the tester reached into the boat to when they pulled their legs into the boat. Testers and observers then compared the experiences of the male and female testers.

Jon Boat Findings

The biggest difficulties testers faced with the jon boat were its instability and low free board. Because the boat's profile is so low to the water, we had spotters watching to make sure it never flipped over on the testers as they boarded. The preferred technique on the jon boat was to step up on the ladder and quickly throw one's torso or leg into the boat before pulling the gunwale too far down into the water. Then testers could roll the rest of their body inside.

The stern and bow of the jon boat were the easiest places to board because they each were within reach of a seat or something the testers could grab onto. Boarding at the stern, however, was only possible because the test jon boat had no outboard motor in place.

The favorite ladders were short one- or two-step models that didn't swing far under the boat. The Davis Swim Stirrup got high marks for its simplicity and ease of use. A simple plastic step at the end of a long, adjustable rope, this ladder was ranked #1 for use on on the jon boat.

The Garelick Inflatable Boat Ladder ranked second on the jon boat. This ladder has two plastic and aluminum steps that are curved slightly to accommodate its intended use on the rounded tubes of an inflatable boat. The steps are attached to an adjustable rope, which was critical to making it suitable for the test boats. The third highest-ranking ladder was the C-Level Sea Steps Safety Ladder. This simple webbed-strap has a single loop at the bottom of a long piece of 4-inch wide webbed material. Not only was it easy to use, but it folds up neatly for convenient storage.

Testers found the longer ladders difficult because their feet pushed the ladder underneath the boat. This made the other side of the boat sway up, towards the tester, throwing them off balance. Many of the longer ladders tended to float on the surface making it difficult to get started. This was especially annoying on the jon boat.

Most of the complaints from testers on the jon boat were about ladders being too long, those ladders without any means to shorten the length were sometimes unusable on the jon boat and required much more upper body strength than others.

a man climbs aboard a rigid inflatable boat

Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) Findings

Several of the ladders tested were specifically designed for inflatable boats. But our testers found that most of them were not very effective. One of these, the Garelick Inflatable Boat Ladder, was a perfect fit on both the jon boat and the Whaler. But testers on the RIB found it very difficult to use because the lowest rung of this two-step ladder barely skimmed the water's surface.

Female testers found that it was very difficult to reach into the boat to deploy the ladders because of the wide girth of the tubes. They, instead, preferred to reach into the boat from the stern then throw the ladder over the side. The male testers, in contrast, often appeared as though they didn't need a ladder at all when pushing up to reach into the RIB and grab the test ladder.

The handhold straps on the tubes of the inflatable proved invaluable to testers as they boarded. Though the top rated ladders for the RIB didn't have conveniently place handholds (if any at all) the handles on the boat worked perfectly as substitutes.

Another frequent complaint was that testers’ arms and legs were scraped by the sharper edges of the ladders that were exposed across the wide edge of the tube when climbing aboard. Shorter ladders were favored again since they tended to leave fewer exposed edges.

The number 1 ladder from the jon boat, the David Swim Stirrup, also ranked highest on the RIB. It was the perfect length (about 20 inches below the waterline) for all the testers. The C-Level Sea Steps was a close second. Though its bottom step was 24 inches below the waterline, just a hair too long, it was still described by one tester as, "Perfect for a boat like this!" Third place was a tie between the 3-step version of the C-Level Sea Steps and the Plastimo Folding Inflatable Ladder.

The Plastimo, designed specifically for use on inflatables, has a unique S-curve shape. The top of the S curves over the tube, hugging the gunwale and then curves back out at the bottom to give better leverage while boarding. This distinctive design often required testers to turn it over during testing since it only fits one way, a small point of frustration, but overall, it was well-liked for the RIB.

Again, testers found that many longer ladders floated out from under them causing much frustration. Tangled ladders also seemed to be more of a problem on the RIB compared to the other boats. Some ladders became twisted inside the boat or during deployment and testers had to adjust them multiple times before beginning to board.

a chart showing the results of the ladder tests

Boston Whaler Findings

The Whaler was a completely different experience when compared to the other boats. With higher freeboard and less angle on the side of the hull, ladders that had been impossible on the other boats proved quite convenient on the Whaler. Despite the higher freeboard, testers still complained about swinging but it was the side-swing that proved most problematic.

Again, the C-Level Sea Steps Safety Ladder (1-step), was rated in the top three coming in third place on the Whaler. It was the only ladder that worked well on all the test boats. The top rated ladder for the Whaler was intended for use on inflatables, but the Garelick Inflatable Boat Ladder was preferred on the Whaler for its stability and ease of use. One tester said, "I loved this one!" The single complaint was that it was difficult to deploy. Pulling it through the railing on the boat was cumbersome but once it was deployed, it required very little upper body strength when compared with other ladders.

Another Garelick ladder, the EEz-In Gunwale Ladder, ranked in second place on the Whaler. Though it was also difficult to pull through the railing testers were surprised by its stability. The higher freeboard and slab side of the Whaler provided a perfect surface to push against while climbing this 3-step, hook-style ladder.

Though it didn't rank in the top-three, the Plastimo Five Step Safety Ladder definitely deserves an honorable mention. It was the only 5-step ladder to rank in the top four on any of the test boats. Testers loved its innovative design but found it difficult to use on the other two boats because of its length. On the Whaler, though, its narrower steps and uncomlicated deployment earned it higher ratings. Designed as a simple bag with two loops for installation, this ladder deploys from its installed location by flipping it over the side of the boat and pulling on the handle to release the ladder. The Velcro flap pulls open and the five-rung plastic and webbing steps fall out of its pouch and into the water.

On a side note, the Boston Whaler used for this testing did have a swim platform and boarding ladder already installed. But, many boat owners with a similar style of boat won't have a standard boarding ladder installed. For the purposes of this test, we did not use the swim platform and only evaluated the boarding ladders as they would be used on a similar boat without a permanently affixed swim platform.

four people sit on a boat

Some Tips on Choosing the Right Ladder for Your Boat

One of the questions that arose with all the ladders was how and where to attach them. The jon boat was the toughest with no logical point of attachment inside the boat. Staff members had to rig a line that circled the interior deck of the boat and then each ladder could be clipped to the line with a heavy-duty carabiner. The RIB had a few D-rings on the floorboards and the Whaler had cleats on the top of the gunwale.

Plan Ahead - Before you choose a ladder, think about where and how you will be attaching it to the boat. This factor plays a big part in determining the right ladder for your boat. Other factors to consider include:

  • Once installed, how much space do you have for storing the ladder so it is still reachable from the water?
  • How much free board does your boat have and will you be able to use it as a surface to push against when climbing a ladder?
  • Are there any obstacles that may impede deployment of the ladder - railings or stanchions that the ladder will have to be maneuvered around when deploying from the water?

The fanciest, most expensive ladder is not always the best choice for you or your boat. In our tests, we often found that simpler was better.

Practice, Practice, Practice - Once you've purchased a boarding ladder, you'll need to practice using it. Re-boarding success is all about technique. Take your boat out on a warm day and practice boarding with your ladder so you know what to expect should the unexpected occur. This will also help you determine how and where you can store it.

It must be within reach of the water, which can vary depending on the person at the boat. If you can't reach it from the water, you won't be able to use it, and you may not be able to get back in the boat at all.