The simple transfer of kit and crew has resulted in people in the water, and lives being lost. Chris Beeson looks at the safest way to board from a tender

What’s the safest way to get from tender to yacht?

It’s difficult to see this for the fraught operation it can be. People falling into the water while stepping into or out of small, unstable boats, is an absolute staple of Saturday night video clip shows. It’s pure slapstick, never fails to raise a laugh and always ends soggily but happily. The reality for cruisers can be less amusing.

For instance, it’s likely you’ll be on your own, or with one other crew, and neither of you will be as lithe as once you were so available physical assistance will be limited.

It’s also likely that you’ll be in a river with the tide rushing past. It’s unlikely you’ll be carrying any waterproof means of raising the alarm, you may or may not be wearing a lifejacket and you could be returning to the boat after a few drinks ashore or on another boat so your decision-making and physical coordination might not be too sharp. All in all it’s potentially a very dicey situation.

In 2012, the last year for which figures were collated, the RNLI attended 71 incidents involving tenders, in three of which people died. Having ascertained that many tender users were not wearing lifejackets because they didn’t want to carry them around while ashore, and felt they would be stolen if left in the tender, the RNLI launched its lifejacket locker initiative. Its first installations, on pontoons in Salcombe and Fowey, have been well used and widely welcomed, but that’s only two locations. Elsewhere the problem goes untackled.

Stability and balance

Tender

Even with steps, a lifeline gate and the tender secured alongside, this still looks pretty precarious

Why is the transition from tender to yacht so fraught? At the heart of the problem is the instability of the tender. For their stability, rigid tenders rely on careful weight distribution and a low centre of gravity, and if you’re trying to get yourself or your kit onto a yacht, you can’t do that without moving to one side of the tender and raising the centre of gravity, rendering the tender unstable. An additional problem is the fact that, in pushing yourself or some kit up and onto the yacht’s sidedeck, you invariably end up pushing the dinghy away from the yacht with your feet. Inflatables, while more resistant to rolling because of the buoyancy of the tubes, suffer more with this because there is nothing in the way of a keel to resist the sideways movement.

In this article we’ll address each of these problems and devise a safe way of boarding for the set-up we had, which was a Bavaria 34 Cruiser with an inflatable tender. Obviously this isn’t the set-up most cruisers will have so for each situation we’ll look at other scenarios, the different challenges they present and how best to overcome them.

Where should I come alongside?

Tender

Our Bavaria has a split backstay and a wide stern, so the quarter offers secure mooring points and handholds – ideal in flat water

We need a spot that offers handholds. The stanchions and lifelines are not recommended as they’re too low when we get to deck level, even if we trust them to withstand the leverage we’ll exert when hauling ourselves up onto the deck.

We need something above our centre of gravity, which, for the average human, is just above the hips. Essentially that means the backstay, which is split on this boat, or the shrouds, in our case helpfully positioned on topside chainplates, as far outboard as possible. So on this boat, the best places to secure alongside are at the shrouds, or at the quarters.

Use guardrail gates

Tender

If your boat has lifeline gates, then that’s the place to board, as the need for higher handholds isn’t so great

The one exception to this handhold rule is the guardrail gate, through which you can scuttle crouched down or on your knees, holding onto the stainless steel frames either side before grabbing a coachroof handhold, without having to step over the lifelines. They’re usually found port and starboard somewhere between the cockpit and the shrouds in a place where there’s enough sidedeck space to put down a few kitbags. In most conditions, that presents itself as the easiest place to board.

We arrived at our Bavaria just at the bottom of the tide so there was little stream to consider. Winds were light too so we could come alongside wherever we wanted. Had there been a stream ripping past and a decent breeze, we would have looked around the boat, particularly at the quarters, to see if wind and tide had interacted to create a patch of flatter water. If it had, that’s where we’d secure alongside. If there was a fair bit of wind over stream and the boat was pitching, we’d have chosen the shrouds. They’re closer to the axis of the pitching so there would be least movement there.

Our Bavaria has a drop-down transom. In calm waters, this appears to offer the perfect boarding spot but first it needs unlocking and lowering. We could do this by holding ourselves alongside the stern, fiddling with the securing bolts and making sure the tender is out of the way when the transom lowers. Though this has its risks, it is doable, but why make life more difficult than it needs to be? It’s much easier to get on board first, lower the transom then bring the tender aft. Another reason for doing this is that we could plug in the removable bathing ladder to give the bathing platform some decent handholds to help us get on board safely.

Different yachts and different tenders

Tender

There are plenty of handholds on the transom of this Ovni, perfect for securing a tender fore-and-aft alongside the stern

If your yacht has a sugar scoop or a bathing platform, then it should have handholds good enough to help you climb back onboard after taking a dip. Those will give you secure points to which you can secure the tender fore-and-aft, and help you to board safely. If, however, the boat is pitching, avoid boarding at the transom entirely, as it involves taking risks that simply aren’t necessary. Other boarding options for this Ovni include the lifeline gates, quarters and shrouds.

Tender

The arch is a handhold, the ladder offers secure steps, and Mary’s foot is on the tender’s centreline. Textbook boarding

In his excellent feature on tender choice and use, Ken Endean explained how he uses the arch on his Sabre 27 London Apprentice as a handhold while boarding. Together with a set of telescopic steps hung on the quarter, boarding is safe and controlled at every step. Ken’s tender isn’t inflatable so it lacks outboard buoyancy. This means that weight has to be kept on the tender’s centreline to reduce as far as possible the risk of capsize, and we can see Ken’s wife Mary executing that perfectly here, with a secure handhold too.

Classic IOR yacht designs have a pinched transom, often well clear of the water, which may or may not have a folding bathing ladder. There is a single backstay on the centreline that offers a decent handhold but the challenge is to keep yourself close to the stern for long enough to deploy the bathing ladder.

I would not secure the tender fore-and-aft with this type of transom as, even if she isn’t pitching, any passing craft will create a wake that could induce it and you don’t want the bathing ladder and stern crashing down on your tender.

Tender

With a transom-mounted rudder, you can’t get close enough to secure fore-and-aft safely

Boats with transom-hung rudders will often have a bathing ladder and a transom that reaches the water, but can you moor the tender fore-and-aft at the stern? Again, if there’s any sort of pitching, why take the risk? If it’s calm it’s a possibility, but I’d want to be sure that the fine trailing edge of the rudder is not in contact with the tube if my tender was inflatable. With the tiller secured firmly amidships, I might think about adding steps to the rudder above the waterline to make boarding easier, but the pintles might not be designed to handle my sort of weight.

For boats without much in the way of sidedecks at the shrouds, any sort of toerail will offer another step to get onto the coachroof, using the shrouds for support. The other option, which makes it easier to load your kit on board, is to secure fore-and-aft alongside the cockpit. The problem with boarding here is that, unless you have an arch, there are no handholds high enough to step on board while steadying yourself. Any wake and you could be pitched head-first into the cockpit, or into the water.

Tender

Older boats may offer less favourable transom boarding than modern boats, but their low freeboard means boarding at the shrouds is easy

When it comes to boarding, the biggest single advantage older boats have over modern boats is lower freeboard. Even though it’s likely the chainplates will be some way inboard, as the narrower shroud bases used to dictate, the lower freeboard may well bring them within reach. Perhaps a halyard left shackled to the toerail would provide the support you need to control your boarding? Just check regularly for chafe at the sheave.

How should I secure alongside?

Tender

Securing the painter to the tender’s outer grabrails does a better job of preventing it drifting away from the topsides

It is very much best practice to secure bow and stern, another reason why a long painter is essential. Get alongside and hold onto the toerail as you thread the painter round stanchion bases fore-and-aft of the dinghy.

With an inflatable, I secure the working end of the painter to the tender’s outside grabrail. There’s enough buoyancy in the inboard tube, the one nearest the boat, to stand on it while you’re boarding, and the painter serves to prevent the tender from sliding away from the boat.

How to board with a different set-up

TenderWith a rigid tender, secure the painter to the near side of the tender’s transom. That way, if your feet stray inboard of the centreline while you’re standing on the thwart to board, the painter acts to support the inboard side of the tender and prevent capsize. To this end, some add a midships line from tender to deck to make doubly sure that you can step on the thwart inboard of the centreline without risking capsize. However, this nearside mooring is not an option if the yacht is rolling heavily, because it could capsize the tender.

Tender

This Legend 33 has plenty of secure points and handholds, ideal for boarding in flat water

If the boat isn’t pitching and there’s not much stream running, securing alongside a sugar scoop bathing platform makes boarding easier, from an inflatable at least. Ideally you will have handholds either side of the platform through which you can thread the painter; stern-to mooring cleats on the transom would serve the same purpose.

TenderIf you have neither, you’ll need to get someone onto the platform by motoring the bow against the platform to allow them to board with the painter, so that they can thread the painter through stern cleats or pushpit bases before securing to the tender’s stern grabrails. If you’re on your own it’s a bit more haphazard, shuffling your bottom from tube to platform as you get alongside, so I would recommend boarding at the shrouds and bringing the tender aft. Another option for securing bow and stern is to add a sternline to the transom, so you can cleat off the painter then either haul by hand, or use the outboard, to back the tender round to the other stern cleat to get the stern line on.

TenderIf you have a folding bathing ladder next to a transom-hung rudder, another option is to secure the appropriate length of painter to allow you to drift back until you’re alongside the ladder, which takes the strength of the stream out of the equation. Release the ladder, hang onto the pushpit, step onto the ladder and board holding the backstay. As the tender’s stern is not secured, it’s riskier than securing alongside fore-and-aft but it works for many. Wear a lifejacket.

What’s the safest way to board?

Tender

With the higher topsides of a modern boat, no amount of athletic ability is going to make boarding like this a safe option. With the tender secured fore-and-aft, step from the tender tube to the Fender-Step, then deck, using the shrouds as handholds. For taller topsides, Fender-Step makes a two-step model. Other step fender makers offer up to five steps for even taller topsides

First, check for any traffic that could create a wake that sets the yacht rolling or pitching. If there is, wait a few seconds until the wake has passed rather than risk having your handhold or foothold torn from you.

Like most modern 32ft cruisers with standing headroom for six-footers everywhere below, our Bavaria has plenty of freeboard, well over 1m (3ft). To attempt to board from the tube of an inflatable is a complete non-starter. Even for Theo, a fit young man, it was a struggle.

We tried using an ordinary fender as a step, with lines through both ends secured to the toerail, but the risk of it rolling when stepped on, pitching you face-first into the topsides, was too great to recommend it.

Helpful topside steps

The answer is a ladder, telescopic ideally, that you can hook over the toerail and climb up using handholds. As we saw earlier, it works for the Endeans, and doubles as a man overboard boarding ladder as it extends into the water. However, there is another dual-purpose device that makes the whole business so much easier: a Fender-Step. There are several on the market but we used the one- and two-step model made by Dan-Fender.

It costs around £45 online, so more than twice the price of an average fender, but it serves well as a bow fender, or on the transom while moored stern-to, and it does its second job magnificently. Theo rigged it round the chainplates, put one foot on the tube, the next on the Fender-Step, and the third on the toerail while holding on to the shrouds, then stepped over the lifelines and onto the deck in perfect safety.

For taller topsides Dan-Fender also makes a two-step fender for around £50, and other manufacturers make models with up to five steps. If you can’t secure fore-and-aft at the shrouds, grab the toerail and get your foot onto the lowest rung of a five-step ladder, then grab the shrouds when they’re within reach and climb aboard, yours is an unusual yacht or a frail crew, in which case it might be safer for all concerned to meet them at the nearest available pontoon.

How to get your kit on board safely

Tender

Our Bavaria had an unclippable lower lifeline at the quarter, great for MOB recovery and handy for getting heavy bags on board, too

Once you’re secured fore-and-aft, the best way to get kit on board is first to get someone on deck and pass them the bags.

If you’re alone, you might like to fit a feature we found on our Bavaria: a lower lifeline on both quarters that can be unclipped, which allows the bags to be passed under the upper lifeline onto the sidedeck.

For heavier items of kit, attach a block-and-tackle to the boom end, or to a halyard if you’re alongside the shrouds, and use that to haul the gear on board. It works for the outboard too, removing the jeopardy of the transfer of a heavy, unwieldy lump from deck to tender transom and vice versa.

As with almost everything in yachting, there is a quick way to do things, and a safe way to do things. How you manage risk is up to you.