Build a Boarding Step - Sail Magazine

Build a Boarding Step

As you get older, you usually discover it’s a little harder to climb on and off a boat. At least, that’s what’s happened to me. Attempting to improve my lot, I tried out several commercially available boarding steps. Some had good features, but I wasn’t really happy with any of them. Then one day Vince and Dianne Purcell stopped by aboard Finn MacCool, their classic Bill Tripp–designed
Publish date:

As you get older, you usually discover it’s a little harder to climb on and off a boat. At least, that’s what’s happened to me. Attempting to improve my lot, I tried out several commercially available boarding steps. Some had good features, but I wasn’t really happy with any of them. Then one day Vince and Dianne Purcell stopped by aboard Finn MacCool, their classic Bill Tripp–designed Columbia 34 Mk II, on their way to Florida. When they came alongside for a visit, they were carrying exactly the steps I’d been searching for. The problem was that it couldn’t be bought; Vince had designed and made it himself. I was so impressed that I asked whether I could take down the dimensions so I could build one myself and also write an article about his step.

Vince used 3/4-inch marine plywood to make his step, but it could just as easily be built from a non-wood material like StarBoard polymer. Although this would make the final product slightly heavier, there wouldn’t be any need to seal or paint it, as you’d have to with marine plywood.
No matter what material you decide to use, your first step is to make a pattern for the step’s two side pieces. I like to use foam board for making patterns because it is stiff enough to hold its shape and can be cut easily with a hobby knife. Making the pattern fit the hull shape of your boat is a process of cutting and shaping until the foam board lies snugly against the side of the hull. The pattern should go over the toerail and be configured so the two side pieces lock securely in place over the rail and also let you pick up the step without having it bind up. Vince’s step had to be shaped so that the toes of the step extended over both the toerail and the jib track (Photo 1).

Be sure to make the upper ends of the side pieces, particularly the toe area, thick enough; do not make them any smaller than the general dimensions shown in the figure below. This is important because the step can be heavily loaded when it’s in use, and the design places a great deal of loading on the hooked section.

When you’ve finalized the pattern for the side pieces, use it to make an outline on the material you will use. Making the steps, braces, and toe licks is simple because they are all rectangles. It is important to make a groove, or dado, in the side pieces; allow plenty of space below the groove. The first step Vince made didn’t have enough space, and the material under the dado broke out. For 3/4-inch stock make the dado 1/4-inch deep.

If you don’t have a router or table saw that can cut the dados, you can use aluminum angle brackets to hold the step in position, but you must through-bolt the brackets. Do not just screw them in place. Use stainless-steel self-tapping screws to assemble the step if it’s made from polymer. Use epoxy and stainless screws to assemble the side pieces and step(s) if you’re using plywood. Always pilot-drill the material before inserting a screw. The bottom brace area under the step is particularly important if you use StarBoard because it isn’t as stiff as marine ply. Make it at least 3 inches wide.

The toe-kick panel above the steps acts as both a brace and a protector for the side of the boat. Attach standard rubber furniture bumpers
—the kind you screw onto the bottom of your furniture to protect the floor—on each side of the top brace and bottom toe-kick panel to keep the step from rubbing against the hull. Placing a piece of antiskid material on the surface of the step, or steps, will produce a more secure tread (Photo 2).

If you make your step from polymer, you won’t have to do any more finishing. If you decide to use marine plywood, you should seal it with several coats of clear epoxy, being particularly careful to cover the end grain. When the epoxy is dry, wash the surfaces thoroughly with water to remove any amine blush, then finish the job by applying two coats of a good polyurethane paint.The paint will also provide necessary UV protection for the epoxy.

One improvement that isn’t shown in the photos is a lanyard that is attached to the step. When the lanyard is tied to a secure part of the boat, like a winch or cleat, clumsy people like me can be confident that they can’t accidentally knock the step overboard and lose it.

When he is not writing about boat projects, Paul Esterle maintains and sails his collection of boats. His latest acquisition is a 1978 Columbia 35.



Chartering the U.S. and Spanish Virgins

Flying into Tortola in the British Virgin Islands one December morning, three months after Hurricane Irma, I felt like a war correspondent dispatched to the battlefront rather than a sailing magazine writer on an assignment to go cruising.As my LIAT plane descended toward Beef ...read more


Weather Gear for Inshore Sailing

Just because you’re not planning on braving the Southern Ocean this summer doesn’t mean that you won’t have some dicey days out on the water. If you haven’t got the right gear, a little rain or humidity can make things miserable. As with all safety equipment, “it’s always better ...read more


2018 Atlantic Cup Video Mini-Series

Atlantic Cup 2018: TrailerThis past spring, SAIL magazine was on-hand to document the 2018 Atlantic Cup, a two-week-long Class 40 regatta spanning the U.S. East Coast and one of the toughest events in all of North America. The preview above will give you a taste of the four-video ...read more


3Di NORDAC: One Year In

One year ago this month, North Sails launched a cruising revolution with the introduction of 3Di NORDAC. The product promised to deliver a better cruising experience for a market that had not seen true product innovation in over 60 years. Today we’re celebrating the team that ...read more


Sea Eagle’s HB96 inflatable SUP

What SUP?Dinghies and kayaks are all very well, but there’s nothing like a stand-up paddleboard for exploring interesting new shorelines while giving you a good workout. Sea Eagle’s HB96 inflatable SUP makes a fine addition to your boat’s armory of anchorage toys, either on its ...read more


Charting the USVI and Spanish Virgins

When my friends and I booked a one-way bareboat charter with Sail Caribe, starting in the U.S. Virgin Islands and finishing in Puerto Rico, we were a little nervous about what we would find in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria—even seven months later.When our plane ...read more


Know How: Sail Repair Kit

Despite your best efforts, there will inevitably be times when your sail gets damaged while at sea and needs to be repaired. First, no matter what the job, you will need to do a quick damage assessment, a task that requires a flat wooden surface, sharp scissors and a helping ...read more


Coming of Age at the Atlantic Cup

Midway through the final race of the inshore portion of the 2018 Atlantic Cup, the three boats in the lead—Mike Dreese’s Toothface 2, Mike Hennessy’s Dragon and Oakcliff Racing, representing the Long Island Sound-based sailing school of the same name—suddenly broke free from the ...read more


North U’s Regatta Experience Program

“Want to check the keel?” North U Coach Geoff Becker calls to me from back by the transom. We’ve just suffered our worst finish in the regatta and are absolutely flying on our way back to shore, spinnaker up and heeling at an angle that feels like maybe we’re tempting fate. ...read more