Boarding ladders can be the difference between life and death.

Rob and Megan are eager to get ashore; the couple have been underway since early morning. Securely moored in the harbor, they ease the dinghy into the water. All loaded, they’re making their way toward the dinghy dock when Rob realizes he’s forgotten his phone and wallet. “I’ll drop you off and I’ll run back out and get them,” he tells Megan.

Out of Megan’s sight, Rob stands in the dinghy, bow line in hand as he approaches the swim platform. Bumping into the back of the boat is all it takes to send him careening over the side, just missing the swim platform as he splashes into the water. He pops to the surface, more angry than hurt. At least his phone and wallet are dry on the boat instead of soaked in his pockets. Now all he has to do is get out of the water, change quickly and call Megan. He can already hear her laughing at his impatience, but she will be thankful he’s safe. This is why they say always wear a life jacket, he thinks. Maybe he will actually start wearing one from now on.

Rob has boarded his boat countless times while anchored off his and Megan’s favorite beach. But it occurs to him now, as he approaches the ladder, that he has always deployed it before going into the water. Right now, when he needs it most, the ladder is neatly stowed under the hinged teak cover on the swim platform. It’s apparent to him, from his lowly position in the water, that he won’t be able to raise the lid, and even if he can, he probably can’t release the ladder to flip it into the water. Forcing himself to relax, Rob takes a few deep breaths and thinks strategically. He had tied the dinghy to the cleat on the corner of the swim platform, which he thinks he can reach. With the dinghy secured, it might be easier to re-board the inflatable, he thinks. Unfortunately, this proves equally difficult, and he is unable to pull himself over the slippery rubber tubes.

Falling overboard from a dinghy is a scary situation that occurs more frequently than you might think. Perhaps it’s the close proximity to the water or the inflatable nature of the boats, but many boaters don’t give these craft proper respect. You might have the upper body strength to pull yourself up and throw a leg over the side, but is that the case for each of your guests? What about your children?

Luckily, Rob’s startling experience had a happy ending that day: A boater on a nearby mooring saw his plight and rescued him from the water. But this simple scenario has happened to other boaters, sometimes with a much more harrowing outcome.

Most boat manufacturers build vessels to a safety standard that addresses items such as boarding ladders. Organizations like the ABYC, NMMA and their European equivalents provide specific safety requirements for boat manufacturers to follow.

The ABYC section on boarding ladders states among other criteria: “The re-boarding means shall be accessible to, and deployable by the person in the water. The first rung of the ladder must extend to a minimum of 22 inches below the waterline, and there must be hand holds.” Many older boats do not comply with this standard and even some new boats made to European standards may have variations in the guidelines.

Wise boaters won’t wait until they’re in Rob’s position to know whether they can safely re-board their boat. It requires a surprising amount of strength to pull yourself out of the water, especially fully clothed. Make sure any family members who regularly boat with you have the strength and reach to safely do the same. Wear your life jacket and test your boarding ladder while anchored in calm conditions, away from a dock or marina and disconnected from shore power. Use care to stay away from engine or generator exhausts when near the stern. One day, these preparations might just come in handy.

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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