Sunday 15 January 2023

Make a Folding Ladder


A Folding Ladder for boarding the tender or over the side 

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 wasn’t easy for any of us. The kids didn’t 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 fold up steps so we could keep them in the tender all the time.

We have tried using some of our friends hard frame steps/ladders 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 as we have found these work in much the same way as the ones we made. The one thing that you will need to do is practice using the ladder, it isn’t easy at first but once you get the hang of it you shouldn’t have any problems. We have had people ranging in age from children to adults in their late sixties use our ladder successfully 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 (me) back into the water. An annoying problem with this ladder was that it only had three rungs and we found the rounded rungs were hard on the soles of the feet. After our ladder failed, I had what I thought was a good idea, I made a ladder with heavy duty large diameter plumbing pipe. While this idea worked, the tubing was still very hard on the arches of the feet, again due to the round rungs. However another problem surfaced, the treads were very slippery when wet. So the new pipe steps didn’t get much use before we decided we needed some steps that were kind on the soles of our feet, were easy to use and importantly easy to store. 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 didn’t like was the use of tube for the treads which as explained earlier would be very 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. If we had whipped up a set of these wooden steps/ladder initially it would have been cheaper than the purchase of the commercially made plastic type and we would still have them. 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. After this outing we then found some hardware shops sell short lengths of conduit and we would not have needed to cut any. 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 mm wide and come with rounded edges and some have grooved textured surfaces.


Drill and drill bit capable of drilling a 10 mm hole

Wood plane/chisel for creating a chamfer
Wood saw
Sanding block
A counter sink bit to chamfer the holes would be nice
2nd cut or bastard file


1 piece of timber dressed 65 X 19 X 1800 Tasmanian oak (6 treads at 300 mm length) $15.00

Or hardwood decking 90 X 19 X 1800 (6 treads at approximately 300 mm length) about $10.00
2 metre length of 20mm conduit (UV stabilised) mostly available in 4.5 m lengths $5.50
5.5 m Length double braid polyester rope 8mm $9.00
2 stainless steel large washers 35mm with 10 mm hole 0.75c each
Sanding paper 100, 120 grit $1.00 - $2.00 sheet
Varnish/paint/oil or leave bare

The material list is for a ladder with six step treads, you can shorten or lengthen the length of the ladder by increasing/decreasing the number of treads and rope easily. However I wouldn’t go too long with this type of ladder as I may be hard to control.

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

Find the centre of the tread width and mark with a pencil, measure in 20 mm from each end and mark for drilling. As a tip: I will always drill an 3mm pilot hole in hard wood 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 tear out at the top of the hole. Always use a backing board under the board being drilled to stop tear out when the bit cuts through.

When all the timber is marked drill the 10mm holes in the treads

If you have a counter sink bit, the holes edges can be cleaned and rounded to assist when threading through the rope later.

Single tread, edges rounded, holes drilled and chamfered with counter sink bit.

From the 20mm conduit cut ten 200mm long tubes, remove the burs and saw marks with sanding paper a good choice would be 80-100 grit

Now the dirty bit, remove the sharp edges from the timber with a wood plane, chisel, 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 now becoming slippery when wet, the application of grit into the painted surface should remedy this.

Parts ready for assembly

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.

Ladder parts assembled

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 didn’t do anything with the excess and thread it in to an eye on the tender and use a round turn and two half hitches to secure it. Don’t cut the rope off too short or knot above the treads until you have folded them up and know how much rope is required. Folding and then rolling the step pack, finally secure with a bungy cord for storage. To fold the steps neatly turn each alternating step 180 degrees to the last the two pieces of conduit lay across the step and is sandwiched under the next. Keep going turning the next step 180 degrees until all steps make a compact package. 

As can be seen the ladder is compact when folded up. The conduit pipes are sandwiched between treads making it a neat.

A five tread ladder ready to go, remember you can add more treads if you want, and if you want to hang it over the side a longer board in the centre to help stop it twisting would be a good idea. 

Ladder 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 hand hold when using the ladder as you get higher up the rungs. If you cannot secure the ladder to the opposite side perhaps a knotted line for use as a hand hold secured to the opposite of the tender.

The tricky bit 

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.

Why make a set of fold up steps to keep in the tender?  a few horror stories. 

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’s not that easy for most of us to get back on to a yacht or tender from the water. It doesn’t 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 hyperthermia. 

While it’s a great 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. If you do single handed trips to the boat (really that is most of us) its worth thinking about . Really it’s 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.

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