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 only means of access on and off the ship.

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

Take a quick read on these.


Pilot Ladder

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


Accommodation Ladder

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 is controlled by wires fitted on the end platform. A motor controls the movement of these wires using only two directions- up and down.

A hinged joint on the top platform enables the ladder to move 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 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.

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


Combination Ladder

Some 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 put 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 the accommodation ladder.

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

Each of them is secured in its own way. The pilot first embarks on the pilot ladder and climbs the remaining height using the accommodation ladder.


A Pilot disembarks a ship using combination ladder- accommodation and pilot ladders.

A Pilot disembarks a ship using combination ladder.


Embarkation Ladder

An embarkation ladder is similar to a pilot ladder except that it has no spreader 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 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 canvass, 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. 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 be impossible to climb back up on board if the crew do not rig the embarkation ladder. This is one reason why, even if the means of abandoning a ship is thru a lifeboat, there are always two persons assigned to rigging the embarkation ladder.


A crew climbing down the embarkation ladder while the lifeboat waits on the water

A crew climbing down the embarkation ladder while the lifeboat waits on the water.



A gangway is a portable bridge that connects the ship to the jetty, a terminal, or even another ship. As long as it can rest on a fixed, flat, and stable surface, a gangway will be the sailor’s 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 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 with the vessel. It is very portable and can be transferred anywhere as long as the ship’s crane allows it.


Ship's gangway rigged on the shore of a tanker terminal while the watchman stands near.

Ship’s gangway rigged on the shore of a tanker terminal while the watchman stands near.


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 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 old ancestral sea dogs quickly adopt it and now we have our own version of it. 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 old sailors climb up and down the ship’s mast. Since their ships are made of wood and sail, rigging the lines require the use of this ladder.

Today, modern seafarers use Jacob’s ladder for overside jobs. 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 working standing on a plank stage while working on the ship's side with his Jacob's Ladder hanging

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


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

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

May the winds be in your favor



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