6 Different Types of Ladders Intended for Use on the Ship’s Side

by | Last updated Nov 24, 2023 | Equipment, Vessel Information | 0 comments

If you think that using a ladder in a breathtaking setting only happens in movies, think again.

The shipping sector also has this kind of struggle especially because the only access to a ship is by means of a ladder!

Whether alongside, in the anchorage, or at sea, these ladders are our sole means of access on and off the ship.

You can not come on board unless you pass through them because they are specifically used on the ship’s side.

Types of Ladders Used on Ship’s Side

Ladders are essential equipment on board. Aside from using them as access to the ship, we can also use them to carry out a wide range of tasks.

They are mostly made of wood or aluminum to keep them as light and as strong as possible.

Depending on their primary use, they can be made with ropes for added flexibility or metal if the ship is safely moored.

Take a quick read on these.

1. Pilot Ladder

A pilot ladder is a portable rope ladder with wooden rungs and spreaders installed throughout its length to prevent twisting. 

Due to its strength and versatility, marine pilots frequently use them to embark and disembark the ship safely.

Marine pilots are an essential help for the bridge team. They complement the Master’s skillful maneuvers with their knowledge of local waters including up-to-date information happening within the harbor.

Unfortunately, bringing the Pilot from the pilot boat to the vessel doesn’t come with a push button. We still don’t have the technology that beams them up to the ship’s bridge or down to their boats.

A pilot ladder makes up for that. It’s a bit crude but still gets the job done.

Not only pilots but also surveyors, agents, loading masters, or even the crew themselves if they are at sea and they need to get on or off the ship.

A pilot disembarking a vessel using a pilot ladder.
A pilot ladder is one of the safest ways for pilots to embark or disembark a ship.

2. Accommodation Ladder

Also called a fixed gangway, an accommodation ladder is a turnable ladder fixed on one side of the ship that acts as a portable bridge when deployed.

Mostly made of aluminum, this ladder uses wires fitted on the end platform. A motor controls the movement of these wires in only two directions- up and down.

A hinged joint on the top platform enables the ladder to pivot up or down depending on the wire’s movements. 

Once deployed to a specific height, the crew can lift the retractable handrails for the pilot, crew, or visitor to hold on to.

An accommodation ladder is more convenient to use than a pilot ladder. You can deploy it when the vessel is alongside, at the anchorage, or when at sea.

A ship's accommodation ladder used in tandem with the shore's portable gangway.
Using the vessel’s accommodation ladder.

3. Combination Ladder

Some types of ships have high freeboards. In this instance, using the pilot ladder as a means of access can be dangerous. The ladder could swing uncontrollably exposing the pilot to danger.

Moreover, it could cause him undue fatigue after climbing too much.

A safer alternative for embarking or disembarking on these kinds of ships is to use a combination ladder. 

We call it that way because this setup is the combination of a pilot ladder and an accommodation ladder.

When the ship’s freeboard reaches more than 9 meters, we must use the combination ladder setup. 

The Bosun usually leads the way in preparing them so don’t worry if you’re afraid of heights.

For this to happen, we have to lower the accommodation ladder to a minimum of 5 meters from sea level with a maximum slope of 45 degrees. 

After that, we rig the pilot ladder at the end of the accommodation ladder’s platform with each of them secured in their own way. 

The pilot or visitor first embarks on the pilot ladder and climbs the remaining height using the accommodation ladder.

Neat, isn’t it?

A Pilot disembarking from a ship using a combination ladder- accommodation and pilot ladders rigged together.
Disembarking the ship using a combination ladder.

4. Embarkation Ladder

An embarkation ladder is similar to a pilot ladder except that it has no spreaders throughout its steps.

In fact, this ladder has the same material as that of pilot ladders and is constructed in quite a similar way.

Aside from the absence of spreaders, embarkation ladders don’t have rubber steps on their ends.

Seafarers use embarkation ladders to board liferafts, lifeboats, or a survival craft deployed on the water surface.

 Hence, you can see them secured near liferaft stations including on the forward part of the ship.

The ladder has a pre-determined height and is designed to be quickly deployed. After removing its protective canvas, you can immediately lower them since they are already secured on deck.

Sometimes, the ship that we thought would eventually sink ends up floating for days and turns out to be fine after all. 

If this happens, the crewmembers inside the survival craft can use the embarkation ladder to board the ship and further assess the situation.

It would have been impossible to climb back up on board if the crew had not rigged the embarkation ladder before leaving the vessel in the first place.

This is one reason why, even if the means of abandoning a ship is through free-fall lifeboats, there are always two persons assigned to rig the embarkation ladder.

A crew climbing down the embarkation ladder while the lifeboat below her waits on the water.
Boarding the lifeboat using an embarkation ladder.

5. Gangway

A gangway is a portable bridge that connects the ship to the jetty, a terminal, or even another ship. 

I was on a tanker vessel and we always have two gangways- a shorter one which is lighter, and a longer one which is heavier. 

As long as it can rest on an unobstructed fixed, flat, and stable surface, the gangway is our best choice for access! 

You might wonder, why is it called “gangway?

Perhaps, maybe a gang of sailors used to pass here during the heydays of seamen’s life. Or maybe some drunk criminal boys always fall on this bridge.

None of those are valid because the word gangway, like many other nautical terminologies, has its original meaning.


The term gang in old English means “a going, journey, or passage”. Combining it with the old English word “weg” which means road or path now makes sense.

A gangway is always deployed perpendicularly to the vessel. It is very portable and can be transferred anywhere as long as the ship’s crane allows it.

It has stanchions, ropes, and a net below and on the side protecting you from falling.

Ship's gangway with ropes and safety net rigged to the shore of a tanker terminal while the watchman stands near it on deck.
A portable bridge or ship’s gangway safely deployed.

6. Jacob’s Ladder

All the ladders mentioned above are exclusively rigged on the ship’s side. But there is one ladder that is very flexible on our day-to-day job on board.

It is called the Jacob’s Ladder and it actually has a Biblical origin.


The original Jacob’s Ladder comes from a dream of Jacob where he saw angels going up and down a ladder that leads to heaven.

Our ancestral sea dogs quickly adopted it and now we have our own version of the equipment. 

Actually, our old mate’s Jacob’s Ladder still leads to the sky but not quite the heavens nor angels climbing up and down into it.

Instead of the angles, you can see our sailors climb up and down the ship’s mast. Since their ships are made of wood and sail, rigging the lines requires the use of this ladder.

Today, modern seafarers use Jacob’s ladder for overside jobs and working aloft. It is light, durable, and highly portable. 

The steps can be made of wood or aluminum and secured with manila ropes. It is perfect for inspecting the ship’s side as a quick way to get the job done.

Usually, Jacob’s Ladder works in tandem with the Bosun’s chair or plank stage (gindola).

A crew standing on a plank stage while working on the ship's side with his Jacob's Ladder hanging nearby.
A crew working on the ship’s side with a Jacob’s Ladder standing by.

Sailing for more than a decade, I personally got the opportunity to use, rig, secure, repair, and maintain all those types of ladders.

These crude means of access, as old as time immemorial, are still very useful on board. They have proven to be the safest method to embark and disembark the ship in port or at sea.

May the winds be in your favor



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