You might be rigging pilot ladders for many years already without knowing that your methods may not be correct.

As a matter of fact, the International Maritime Pilots’ Association (IMPA) studied 3,322 pilot boarding arrangements and discovered that 13.43% of them are non-compliant.

From Africa to South America, they conducted the study in six geographical countries last 2021. Your ship could be one of the survey participants without knowing it!


What is a Pilot Ladder?

A pilot ladder is a unique kind of rope ladder that marine pilots use to embark and disembark the ship. It is one of those ladders intended for use on the ship’s side.

Its purpose is not only exclusive to marine pilots. Crewmembers, surveyors, superintendents, agents, inspectors, and other personnel use them too.

Whether in port, in the anchorage areas, or even at sea while the ship is moving- as is always the case, pilot ladders are the most preferred method of personnel transfer.

Yes, it is kind of heavy but is very robust, and even proves worthy during bad weather. I know because I have met daredevil pilots out there (in the North Sea and Bay of Biscay) who venture to climb these ladders on stormy seas.


Pilot ladders with damage and not safe for use.

Take note which one is the pilot ladder.


SOLAS, ISO, and IMO Requirements for Pilot Ladders

Making a pilot ladder comes with complexities. The material of the steps, its measurements, side ropes, metallic fasteners, retainers, and seizings have their own specifications.

That’s why it is important to ask for certificates from the manufacturers.

The certificate ensures that the maker complies with standards laid out by SOLAS, IMO, and ISO.

Because and take note, a hand-made pilot ladder is not allowed anymore. Those are just a thing of the past. Pilots will know the difference and upon seeing it, they may refuse to board your ship.

Being stored on deck, the ladder is always exposed to varying weights, forces, and elements. You must visually inspect it if it’s still within the compliance zone.

  • The side ropes’ minimum diameter must be 18 mm.
  • Distance between side ropes must be at least 40 cm.
  • Distance between spreaders must be 31 to 35 cm.
  • The spreader must be at least 180 cm long.
  • There must be a maximum of nine steps between spreaders.
  • The first four steps from the bottom must be made of rubber, and
  • The fifth step from the bottom must be a spreader.


Diagram of the required boarding arrangements for pilots.

Pilot ladder boarding arrangements.


Fix or dispose of your pilot ladder if it has any of these red flags

  1. Knots, shackles, or splices on the side ropes.
  2. Steps are not equally spaced.
  3. Steps are not horizontal.
  4. Chocks under the steps are not properly secured.
  5. The spreader is lashed between steps.
  6. Side ropes are not equally spaced.
  7. Steps are treated with coatings, varnish, or paint.
  8. Ropes and tripping lines are tied to the pilot ladder.
  9. Visible and deep cracks appear on the steps.
  10. Side ropes and seizings show signs of deterioration.


Rigging the Pilot Ladder Correctly

There are a hundred or even a thousand ways to rig a pilot ladder. This was observed by long-time marine pilot Arie Palmers.

He noted the various arrangement models on different kinds of vessels. A few are real hazards especially to the person climbing.

Take a look at this image.


Pilot ladder secured on the ship's railings with the entrance a little further

Pilot ladder secured on the ship’s railings with the entrance a little further.


The pilot ladder looks new and it may surely be certified. But the railings? I’m sure we had seen enough bent railings in our sea time. And how comfortable would you be when going to the entrance?

Now, look at the securing arrangement of the next image.


Pilot ladder secured using deck tongue on the step and spreader on the railings

Various red flags. The spreader or the step can take 8.8kN of load, much less than the side ropes’ 24kN. Consider the dynamic weight of the person, the ladder, and other external forces.


Some of them are too complicated to watch. It is a combination of worn-out side ropes and improper securing arrangements. The presence of a responsible officer did not deter such practice.

Of all the thousand ways of rigging a pilot ladder, there is only one correct method. And it is safe for the person using them.

Take a look at this.


This is the correct and only way to rig a pilot ladder. Two ropes secured to the deck shackle is tied to the ladder's side ropes.

This is the correct and only way to rig a pilot ladder. Very simple to duplicate.


In my experience, most of our pilot ladders are secured that way. The only addition is the two extra shackles complementing the lashings. Still, the two lashings take all the weight while the shackles are just there for backup.

Check your pilot ladder boarding arrangement whether it rhymes with the picture above. Note that the lashings are secured on the side ropes since they are the sturdiest part of the ladder.


How strong is a Pilot Ladder? A personal experience

I had many experiences where securing the above proved useful during pilot boarding and disembarking.

It usually happens in particular weather.

The sea was rough as the pilot boat started coming alongside. Upon approaching the ladder, the boat got tossed up with the waves pitting the pilot ladder against the ship’s side.

I was sure that the ladder received the weight of the pilot boat when it pounded back on the waters. I was even looking for damages on the rubber steps and the side ropes but found nothing.

If we made some banana arrangements during that time, we would probably have a damaged ladder.


Arrangement Matters

Of course, we can not put all the blame on the crew. The root cause for most of these findings can be easily traced to the design and construction of the ship.

As a matter of experience, one of the occurring problems some of the deck crew face are with the pilot ladder arrangements. Its weight during rigging and securing claimed many backaches and continue to do so.

But this does not excuse them from fixing those setups. In fact, this does not relieve the whole management or even the shipowners at all.

Related Article: Ship Master’s Job Description: Duties, Responsibilities and Salary

Pilots are full-ahead on bringing this to light since they are the front liners. If we can tap the coast guards, Port State Control Officers, and even vetting inspectors, we can expedite fixing these deficiencies.

As for the crew on board, you must strive to do your best to comply with this regulation. You already know the correct way to set up pilot ladders.


May the winds be in your favor.



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