Maritime Ops: Overcoming high freeboard

When making a climb, sometimes all you have is a boat

By Phillip Null

The first and most critical issue to address in any ship boarding or interdiction is how to get a team on board, a planning concern primarily decided by the freeboard of the vessel.

Freeboard is the height between a ship’s deck and its waterline, or the distance from the water to the rail. On small boats it is low and poses no obstacle to a boarding team that only needs to step across from their own boat to board. On larger vessels and commercial ships the height is significantly increased and can only be overcome from the surface by climbing.

Compliant boats will drop a Jacob’s ladder or make similar accommodations for a team to get on, but an unwilling or hostile crew can’t be expected to do the same. There are only a few methods available to make this climb, and though fast roping from helicopters gets boots on deck quicker and in more intimidating fashion, sometimes all you have is a boat.

Use What’s Available
Everyone has seen photo or video of U.S. Navy SEALS climbing chain to board an anchored ship, a tactic that illustrates the first technique teams should consider. If there is already a ladder over the side and it’s tactically prudent, use it. If capable climbers are involved an anchor chain could provide a viable substitute to a hanging ladder, but remember that once on board the team will be at a disadvantage in most cases as they have to maneuver across an open deck from the bow where the anchor deploys to the accommodation and engineering spaces where the vessel’s controls and most of her crew will be. The chain also won’t be available if the ship’s moving, and even if the anchor is set and the ship is stationary, the climb is going to be awkward and slippery.

Freeboard is the height between a ship’s deck and its waterline, or the distance from the water to the rail. (SWAT Digest Image)
Freeboard is the height between a ship’s deck and its waterline, or the distance from the water to the rail. (SWAT Digest Image)

Climbing Rope
A rope with a grapnel hook tied to its end could be used for some medium freeboard vessels, but by the time climbers make it up they should expect to be fatigued. If carrying a lot of equipment it only gets worse. Knots can alleviate some of the physical strength needed, but safety concerns persist as there is no solid point to clip in if a fall becomes imminent. Ascenders, particularly the kind with power, are available and will make the job easier, but they require additional training and equipment. Their use also limits the number of simultaneous climbers to the number of lines and ascenders available, a factor that could seriously delay embarkation.

Fixed Ladders
The marine boarding ladder, a favorite of Somali pirates, is the best method for medium freeboard heights in the ten feet or less range. Anything higher and they won’t be able to reach. The best of these are fitted with top hooks that slide over a ship’s handrails or kick plates to keep them secure. Teams lift the ladder onto a hook point, test with a pull, then climb up using rungs spaced between the uprights. More narrow pole ladders are also available, and unlike traditional ladders have their rungs leading away from a single pole rather than suspended between two. Many models are collapsible to allow easy transport and storage and some are also buoyant, preventing those nightmare scenarios where the only way onto a target sank after someone dropped it over the side.

Caving Ladder
These are flexible ladders made of two high strength cables with metal rungs spaced between. Used for highest freeboard embarkations, they come at a standard length of 32 feet, but can be custom made to extend even higher. To set them a hook is attached to the top of the ladder then a telescoping (painter’s) pole is used to raise it up to the deck and secure. These can accommodate multiple climbers at one time, but it’s not recommend until the first climber shores up the hook point with a safety runner to prevent the weight and movement from dropping the hook.

Because the painter’s pole must be extended and locked into place and the ladder and hook must be connected, the setup process can cause delays. Several companies have addressed this issue, including ResQmax which offers the VerTmax Pole, an upgrade on the original telescoping design that uses compressed air to raise and lower for faster employment. They also have a line throwing gun that can deploy climbing ropes up to 100 ft and the weight of a ladder up to 50 feet. Another model from Henriksen uses a mechanical winch similar to a fishing reel to speed extension. A top choice for caving ladders and associated equipment is Yates, a popular climbing and weight handling manufacturer with a record for quality and in stock specialty tactical equipment. The last place you need this kind of hardware to fail is miles from land and 30 feet up the side of a ship.

Whenever discussing a high freeboard boarding the question comes up of what to do if the opposition starts trying to release or cut the ladder, rope, etc or otherwise impedes the embarkation from their elevated position on deck. Simple answer is that the bad guys are not only trying to prevent the boarding, but at this point trying to kill officers by forcing their fall. Do whatever’s needed to protect yourself and your team. One way to avoid the interference entirely is to choose the hook or embarkation point wisely. Find a spot those on board aren’t covering or won’t expect and climb on quick with solid cover backing the ascent.

As discussed there are only a handful of options for overcoming high freeboard from the water’s surface. The final decision on which method a team chooses will be based on the target vessel’s construction, the physical ability of the involved officers, and the amount of gear they need to carry on board. Ladders will take a lot of the physical effort out of the equation, but unless they’re a fixed model will require more hardware like a telescoping pole or launcher to get into action. Regardless the method, good luck and hold on tight. Remember the climb is only the first step — someone will be waiting at the top.

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