What is an Embarkation Ladder and How is it Used?

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

I must admit. Embarkation ladders were one of the most confusing nautical terms I encountered in school. 

These two words, simple as they are when separated, got me puzzled when combined.

Partly because, the term “embarkation” in the most nautical sense, usually denotes boarding a ship. And the term ladder is something we use to climb up or eventually down.

Besides, we also have an accommodation ladder, pilot ladder, gangway, and combination ladder

These are our means of accessing a vessel from the ship’s side. Seafarers, pilots, and personnel interacting with the ship use them for embarkation purposes.

So why on earth- or water, those embarkation ladders are used to disembark from the ship?

What is an Embarkation Ladder

SOLAS regulation defines an embarkation ladder as a rope ladder specifically provided at survival craft embarkation stations to permit safe access to survival craft after launching.

But this meaning is so broad that any rope ladder meeting the definition above can be an embarkation ladder. It doesn’t even tell us what it looks like!

To add more confusion, a pilot ladder may be called as such using those details. 

These two are cousins and have similar builds including construction materials and even standard weight designs.

But one detail about these ladders that I understood is their use case. That is, they are only employed for boarding survival crafts such as lifeboats or liferafts in the event of an abandon ship.

Did these definitions clear the air in my head?

Bupkis.

I did not accept it. It is still confusing considering the future generations of seafarers who are as curious as I am.

Besides, they could have picked a better and more befitting name like “abandon ship ladder” or “escape-to-raft ladder“.

Types of Embarkation Ladder

Getting to know more about them may change my mind about their names. 

In fact, continual bombardment with those terms was helpful in familiarizing them, especially if asked by port state control officers (PSCO).

Conventional and Three-String Ladder

Most embarkation ladders have two side ropes, much like a pilot ladder. This is the conventional ladder that you usually find on merchant vessels.

But do you know that there is a second type of ladder which has three side ropes? 

And do you know that it is approved by SOLAS and the ISO (International Organization for Standardization)?

Just take a look at the image below.

Two Types of Embarkation ladder - A two-string conventional ladder and a three-string ladder.
Two-sting and Three-string types of embarkation ladders.

It’s Not an Embarkation Ladder Unless it Meets These Requirements

In addition to the definition provided by the Safety of Life at Sea, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency also added quite a few specifications.

Aside from being installed close to survival crafts, this ladder must comply with the requirements of Schedule 6, Part 5 of the Merchant Shipping Notice MSN 1676(M) Amendment 1.

This is what it says about the ladder’s construction.

Three-string ladder

The steps of the three-string embarkation ladder must be:

  • made of hardwood, free from knots or other irregularities, smoothly machined, and free
    from sharp edges and splinters, or of suitable material of equivalent properties;
  • provided with an efficient non-slip surface either by longitudinal grooving or by the
    application of an approved non-slip coating;
  • not less than 1370 millimeters long, 115 millimeters wide, and 25 millimeters in depth,
    excluding any non-slip surface or coating; and
  • equally spaced not less than 300 millimeters or more than 380 millimeters apart and
    secured in such a manner that they will remain horizontal.
  • The side and center ropes of the three-string embarkation ladder must consist of two
    parts of uncoiled 20 millimeters diameter good quality manila ropes.

Conventional Ladder (Two-String)

The steps for the two-string embarkation ladder must be:

  • made of hardwood, free from knots or other irregularities, smoothly machined, and free
    from sharp edges and splinters, or of suitable material of equivalent properties;
  • provided with an efficient non-slip surface either by longitudinal grooving or by the
    application of an approved non-slip coating;
  • not less than 480 millimeters long, 115 millimeters wide, and 25 millimeters in depth,
    excluding any non-slip surface or coating; and
  • equally spaced not less than 300 millimeters or more than 380 millimeters apart and
    secured in such a manner that they will remain horizontal.
  • The side and center ropes of the two-string embarkation ladder must consist of two parts
    of uncoiled 20 millimeters diameter good quality manila ropes

Furthermore, each of the side ropes has a breaking strength of at least 24kN or about 2.4 kilograms. You can also replace a broken or damaged step of the ladder.

The US Coastguard and the ISO approve replacing a step of an embarkation ladder up to two times. 

This particular replacement step must be made by the same manufacturer, have a different color, and be marked with the words “REPLACEMENT STEP ONLY”.

Replacement steps of embarkation ladder made of wood and rubber.

What is the difference between an embarkation ladder and a pilot ladder?

The difference between the two comes down to their usage and purpose.

I made a very detailed article about pilot ladders that you should check. 

In that very piece, I emphasized the correct method of rigging so anyone climbing that ladder avoids injury. I urge you to follow the recommendations.

Going back, these two pieces of equipment are both rope ladders. Their construction material is similar including their designs. So let’s differentiate them here.

Usage

A pilot ladder is used to board the ship from the ship’s side not only pilots but other personnel as well who have a business on board.

This ladder can be used in port, in anchorage areas, or even when the vessel is underway.

Embarkation ladders on the other hand are used during emergencies, specifically abandon ships. 

Survival crafts like life rafts and davit-type lifeboats have no means of access when deployed on the water. 

The embarkation ladder fulfills that purpose. This ladder is used to embark on these “life pods”.

Changing my perspective to that definition helped me accept the name and definition of the embarkation ladder.

Construction

Both ladders are made of hardwood for their steps and manila ropes for their side ropes. They also have rope seizing and mechanical fastening devices.

The first four steps of a pilot ladder are made of rubber. This material makes it suitable for bumping between the pilot boat and the vessel’s side.

Some embarkation ladders may have rubber on the first four steps but it is not mandatory. Most, as per experience, have nothing except plain hardwood.

A pilot ladder also has long anti-twist spreaders installed strategically throughout its length. An embarkation ladder has none. 

Their steps are uniform throughout their length and takes special skill when climbing them.

Lastly, and as mentioned before, you can replace a damaged step of embarkation ladders up to two times. 

But with my experience with pilot ladders, you have to replace them if you find cracks or damage even if it is new.

Similarities and differences between Pilot Ladder and Embarkation Ladder with charts and visual deployments.
Similarities and differences.

How to use an Embarkation Ladder

Now that you have a fair idea of what an embarkation ladder is, it’s time to “wrestle” on how to rig them.

Using them is also very simple. These are the steps.

  1. Remove the canvas cover.
  2. The ladder is stowed in a fashion ready to deploy. With a partner, lower the ladder beginning from the first step. They are already stacked with the first steps on top.
  3. Slack until all of its length is deployed.
  4. Double-check the securing pad eye if it is properly lashed. In most cases, it should be.
  5. When ready, climb down the ladder one by one with your life jackets on.
  6. Do not jump on top of the life raft or lifeboat at a height. Get as close as possible so you can board from there.
  7. Assist the other crew when boarding the survival craft using the embarkation ladder.

So simple, isn’t it? But do you know where we can usually find an embarkation ladder?

All vessels adhering to SOLAS regulations are expected to have an embarkation ladder. You can find these ladders close to the life raft station or davit-type lifeboat station.

Speaking of liferafts, there is also one on the forward part of the ship. That sole survival craft also has an embarkation ladder installed nearby.

May the winds be in your favor.

Gibi

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