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
Author:
Updated:
Original:

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.

Related

NewBoatsTwitter

New Boats: A Mix of Speed and Smarts

While it’s safe to say that U.S. production boatbuilding is a shadow of its former self, one North American company that is still going strong is Rhode Island-based J/Boats. Not only that, but far from just surviving, the company continues to push the envelope, ...read more

01-LEAD-170914_JR_WCSEnoshima19_327556_0704

Enoshima Japan Olympics

If experience has a tone, it would sound like three-time Olympian and 470 sailor Stu McNay—steady, measured, with a positive, almost Mr. Rogers feeling. “Each Game has a unique flavor,” he says, the day before last spring’s 470 European Championships, one of the rare events he ...read more

Amel50-2048x

Boat Review: Amel 50

It is possible to cross an ocean in almost anything that will float, just as you could cross the United States on anything with wheels. But to voyage safely, swiftly and comfortably calls for a good deal more than the minimum. That’s where bluewater specialist Amel comes into ...read more

01-LEAD-lagoon46-ncz4503-a3

10 Places to Cruise With a Catamaran

Navel gazing doesn’t get much better than from the deck of a sailboat anchored somewhere exotic. You can think great thoughts staring up at the stars from a South Seas anchorage. It’s also better doing so on a catamaran. Full confession: I’m a cat convert, a cat evangelist if ...read more

Radome

Ask SAIL: Some Random TLC

Q: I recently removed my radar’s white radome, which covers the internal rotating antenna. I gave the radome a light sandblasting to clear it of years of grime and discoloring. Should I paint it, too? — B. Anderson, Aberdeen, MD GORDON WEST REPLIES Stop! First, make sure the ...read more

L42-Sea-Trails-3728

Boat Review: Leopard 42

Sticking with its proven design formula, but also cherry-picking popular features from its recent models, Leopard Catamarans has launched a “best of” package with this new boat that sold nearly 30 units before hull #1 even touched water. Like a greatest hits album, the Leopard ...read more

01-LEAD-Cut8

Know how: Reinforcing Engine Stringers

If I were to ask, “What are the top five parts of the engine you want to be able to easily access?” How would you respond? Would it be the dipstick? The overflow coolant? I’d wager the raw water pump and its impeller would also make the list. Am I right? The reason we want to be ...read more

Sail-VOE-4-a

Experience: Under the Eyes of the Bar Bunch

Sitting quietly at the bar of a local yacht club, I gaze out over a rambunctious Lake Michigan on a sunny but blustery spring afternoon. I am enjoying watching a small sloop approaching the marina and recognize it as belonging to one of our newest members. “Pretty little thing. ...read more