Reviewing Boarding Ladders in Marinas
Monday, January 30, 2012 at 5:53PM
Dennis Kissman in 1997, Industry Articles, Management, Safety

This article, by Damian E. Buckley, was published in Marina Operator International – October 1997

Sometimes the best solutions to problems are right before our eyes.  In my position, I have the opportunity to visit a number of marinas and as the saying goes, "no two marinas are the same" may be true but many of the problems marinas face are the same.  Through the years as recreational boating has become a popular family recreation there is one problem that both boat and dock manufactures have not resolved to any degree of satisfaction for the boating public and that providing a safe and convenient way to board a boat.  Whenever you have a situation where the water level changes the problem is compounded with a fixed dock system, where the distance between the dock height and the amount of free board is never constant.  By contrast, floating dock systems at least offer a constant amount of freeboard above the dock surface but that is where it ends.

Since the dock surface is usually about two feet above the water with a boats freeboard easily between five or six feet and neither the boat nor the dock are fixed the question is how one easily and safely boards a boat.  As a marina operator you may say that it’s not my problem but it is, we are in the service side of this industry.  The burden does fall on us to make the boating experience as enjoyable as possible for the boater.  Besides if an accident does occur in the marina regardless whose fault it is the marina is the one that ultimately suffers.  In one of the marinas, we manage with a floating dock system we have a customer that has designed and built one of the safest boarding steps that I have seen.  I think the idea is so good that I want to share it with you and in turn, I hope you find merit in it and share it with your staff and customers with similar problems.

Boarding steps are frequently located on narrow finger piers with boats tied to both sides.  The wider the boarding steps, the more problematical it is for the second user, of the same finger, to gain entry or egress to or from their boat.  Picture 1 shows boarding steps that occupy more than three-quarters of the width of the finger.  This boater obviously hopes that nobody is going to use that empty berth next to him, because it is very difficult to get past.  He is obviously the type of boater that believes that the finger is for his private use.  My experience has shown that in most marinas the finger piers are meant to be shared by the boats on either side.

I have seen where local emergency services particularly fire departments, while making a routine safety inspection of a marina will put in their report the obstacles they encounter which have included boarding steps.  You know that if the local fire department has problems at the marina other emergency services will also face the same problem.  Now the question is, if you have an emergency at the marina and one of these services are called and they have problems getting past boarding steps that occupy a full width of the finger pier and have commented about it on a previous inspection yet nothing done to correct the situation, your problems may just only be beginning.  Not only might damage to the finger piers or the to boats on either side of the finger occur, there is also a chance of someone getting hurt.  If there is an accident that has occurred involving the boarding steps then you had better check your insurance policy.  Sometimes an insurance company can deny the claim on grounds that you knew about the problem and elected not to correct it.

Here is one boater’s idea that is very simple yet innovated.  How do you correct this problem and instruct boaters on a way that will give their boarding steps stability, look good, and not hinder other users of the same finger?  A boarding step that was designed with others in mind is shown in Picture 2.  The stair tread is slightly narrower, but the real thought comes at the base.  The base of the boarding steps goes completely across the finger.  Half the width of the finger is used by the steps and the other half by the stable platform.  Both boaters are now happy.  The advantage of this design is that it can be used for a boat of any height.  The base is hollow and contains cinder blocks for added stability.  This particular design has withstood gusts of over 75 mph.  More stability is needed for the boarding steps the higher they are built these boarding steps are bolted together rather than nailed; they are therefore easily dismantled, stowed and transported.  This boater has decided to use untreated wood and paint it; matching the trim on his boat and making the boarding steps look spiffier.  Treated wood could be used.  He has used a darker paint on the treads to help retain heat in order to dry off any moisture that can accumulate overnight.  Holes have been drilled in the tread to help remove moisture as well.  These drain holes will also help when snow and ice form on the treads making the surface slippery.  A handrail had been added for safety.  Some boaters have built in dock boxes into their steps for added storage and as long as belongings are not visible either through the tread or through the back, this is acceptable.

If your marina is like most you probably have as many different designs for boarding steps as you have personalities in the marina.  As owner or operator of a marina, it is up to you to set the rules.  In the particular marina where this customer has his boat berthed, the rules regarding boarding steps were vague and hard to enforce.  What we have done in our marina newsletter, an acknowledgment of this boater and we have stated that his design will be our new standard for dock steps.  Although we just published the article in our most recent marina newsletter, the first reactions were positive from other boaters.  We believe that this is partly due to the idea coming from another boater rather than just another demand placed on the our customer by management

Boarding steps are only one of the problems that face management.  I am sure that there are other good ideas that are around we just have to keep our eyes open and acknowledge them when they appear.  I would like to know of any suggestions that can improve our ability to manage and make the marina an enjoyable experience for our customer.

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