Dock steps that brace against the hull are also great, especially on a wobbly dock. The kind that have a rubber wheel or plastic fender are extra-stable. If you build your own custom steps, use the widest possible treads, and don't skimp on the nonskid. Paint-on nonskid is great if the surface can be painted, since paint doesn't peel at the corners like nonskid strips do, which in turn create places to turn an ankle.
Speaking of stairs, look carefully at the ones on your new boat, particularly if retirement is near. Steep spiral steps or an elegant ladder may look great now, but past a certain age one simply does not go bouncing up and down ladders. Unfortunately, the only remedy for narrow, steep stairs or cluttered, slippery decks is small, nimble feet and catlike balance, neither of which we're going to magically acquire as we age.
When we bought Santorini, the boat that we spend summers aboard in Europe, Jim spent an afternoon making sure we could both maneuver quickly and easily around her and that the bulwarks and handrails were sturdy and arranged to assist and protect us when docking or in a lock. I'm athletic and don't mind a bit of leaping and balancing to perform my first mate duties, but I've come to appreciate Santorini's wide, teak decks now that we've been through hundreds of canal locks. I can get anywhere onboard in a flash, ready to make a line fast, fend off a drifting boat, or, if needed, rescue one of our cats.
In Europe, where bank ties and Med moorings (stern-in, bow-out) are frequent, we use a gangplank liberally painted with nonskid. A ramp is also useful for loading supplies and for folks who can't use a boarding ladder. Our gangplank stows neatly on chocks set into the saloon overhead. We rig it with ropes and metal struts that fit into the ramp, making it more stable and creating a comfortable handrail.
When it comes to interiors, powerboaters can take a lesson from sailors. Sailboats have handholds everywhere! They're easy to install and are available at most marine-supply stores. The hard part is locating them where you need them. To help, imagine your boat in a seaway, and think, "Where will I fall when the boat lurches?" That's a good place for a handhold. If your boat has a lot of open space with nowhere to attach a handhold, consider installing a fixed table at dining height. It will break up the space and give you something to hang on to. Do not install a coffee table; low tables are a hazard as they are easy to trip over and invite serious injury.
We find small step stools to be quite useful, too, especially on other boats when the boarding ladder is a little high from the dock or the drop over the coaming is a little low. We have a wooden one, but there are other types available, including easily stowed folding models.
What we love most about boating, outside of the sheer thrill of it, is how physically accessible the lifestyle is, and that's why we try to spend as much time on the water as we possibly can. We're hoping the suggestions we've outlined here will bring some of that accessibility to even more boaters. Don't let age or mobility issues stop you from enjoying the cruising life. It certainly hasn't stopped us.
This article originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.