Pilot ladder construction and arrangement – Learn how a pilot boards a ship


We have studied about pilots in context of a ship and know that it refers to an expert navigator used locally by ships where navigation by the normal navigating officers on board would be bit risky and could lead to grounding or collision. But if you have noticed one thing that a pilot always boards a ship at sea and also during departure from port, the pilot gets off at sea.

So how does a pilot get on the ship because if you are not familiar with ship, it is a giant structure and sometimes it might not be steady due to rough weather conditions? (please note that this link leads to the article on rogue waves, but I don’t mean that a pilot would board a ship under rogue wave conditions) This is an interesting topic in itself as we will learn about pilot ladder construction and arrangement in the following sections.

Pilot Ladder Construction

Pilot Ladder

A pilot normally embarks and disembarks from a ship using a special ladder known by what else but the pilot ladder due to obvious reasons. You can best understand about the pilot ladder by taking a look at the sketch of such a ladder in the image below. The image shows the pilot ladder hanging down from the ship side. As you can make out, the ladder has the following parts

Manrope – this is a rope which is present on both sides for physical hold of the person climbing or descending from the ship.

Sideropes – these are used to hold the steps and take the weight of the climbers and the steps. Regulations say that this rope cannot be less then 20 mm in diameter.

Spreaders – these are used at regular intervals of the pilot ladder and help to ensure that the ladder does not get twisted which would cause difficulty to the pilot. They are normally 2m in length and are made of some kind of hard wood that could be oak. The maximum interval of a spreader can be 9 steps.

Treads/steps – the steps obviously need to be made of non-slippery material and are also normally made of same material like the spreaders, except the last 3 steps which are made out of hard rubber as they would more often come in contact with the sea water.

It must be remembered that the pilot ladder has to be made from a continuous length only and cannot be made of two or more lengths joined together. This is simply to ensure strength as you wouldn’t want the pilot to be in a dangerous situation.

But do you realize how the ladder is fastened at the top where it reaches the main deck of the ship. Well it can be done in either of the two ways depending on the exact situation at the top. The pictures below show two situations where the ladder goes over the bulwark and directly onto the main deck. The images are self explanatory and you can see that in either case, the handrails are provided for grip of the climber at the top of the ascent. Also the ropes are secured safety with some arrangement at the deck which is very important.

Securing the Pilot Ladder

There are lot of technical details regarding pilot ladders and their rigging but I will not include them here. Just note that during night time there should be sufficient light for the pilot to see around, plus there need to be arrangements for lifebuoy and related safety gear in case anything goes wrong so that immediate action can be taken.

Maximum Height

Obviously the job climbing a pilot ladder is not easy so there is a maximum limit to which the pilot is supposed to climb. This is necessary since the regulators cannot expect pilots to have the skills of Tarzan or Superman, so anything more than 9 meters in height needs to be provided access using accommodation ladder or some automated means of hoisting. We will learn about these various types of pilot arrangement in our next articles.