A Step Below
We’ve owned Ternabout, our 20’ Matilda sailboat, since 1985. Many things have changed since them. Unfortunately, one of them are my knees, they just don’t bend as well as they did in 1985. Ternabout came to us with a rickety ladder down into the cabin. We tossed it after a few shaky trips down it. Back then we could step from the companionway down onto the starboard quarterberth without a problem. However, that step became harder and harder over the last several years. That started me on a search for a better way of entering and exiting the cabin. It doesn’t sound like much of a problem, but it is after all about a three foot drop from the companionway to the cabin sole. Way too much for my knees. One challenge to finding a decent companionway step is the fact the Matilda companionway is off center to starboard. That means that the surface that any ladder lands on is curved. My first attempt was a ladder I purchased at a local marine store. It had two tubular aluminum side rails and three oak steps. The tops of the side rails had pins that fit into sockets while the bottom had rubber tips on the ends of the tubes. I was able, with a little difficulty, to find a way to bolt the sockets for the ladder top pins just below the companionway. I cut one side tube shorter so both of the ladders bottom tips fit the curve of the hull where the tips rested. It worked “okay”, meaning I could get in and out of the cabin easier than before. It did have several problems, though. The angle of the ladder meant that it extended into the cabin a fair distance. That meant that sitting in the starboard quarterberth was uncomfortable as the ladder reduced the available leg room. The distance it extended into the cabin also meant that by the time you were on the bottom step, you were already hitting the sliding companionway hatch. You could only back in and hunched over at that. I finally pulled it out in frustration and gave it to a dock mate with more room below than me. He had to figure out a way to extend the leg I’d cut off, though. The serendipity arrived via the internet. The Matilda was designed by Robert Tucker back in the 70’s. Few know that Robert’s son, Tony, updated the Matilda design as the Pippin 20. The Pippin 20 is still being built today. In any case, I was surfing the ‘net and looking at the Pippin sailboat site (www.pippin-yachts.com). There I noticed a neat step that was used on the Pippin. It spanned the distance between the two quarterberths and slid in and out. It looked like it would also be adaptable to a Matilda and its offset companionway (the Pippin’s is central). Back aboard Ternabout, I began some experimentation. On the Pippin, the step slid on runners attached to the sides of the quarterberths. On Ternabout, that would have lowered the step, something I didn’t want to do. So, with some oak 1x2 and 2x2 wood pieces and a pine 1x12, I tried out some combinations. The edges of the quarterberths had teak trim that extended above the surface of the quarterberth. These helped retain the cushions in place and I didn’t want to modify them. I propped up the 1x10 with various combinations of 1x1 and 2x2 wood sections. A single 1x2 didn’t raise the 1x12 high enough to clear the quarterberth edge. Two pieces of 2x2 raised the step too high; it hit the flare canister mount. A piece of 1x2 and a piece of 2x2 raised the step to its maximum height without interfering with flare canister mount. The mockup step was strong enough for me to actually try out, so I left it in place for a couple of weeks to make sure I liked the design before building a finished unit. The step divided the three foot drop onto the cabin roughly in half. It felt comfortable and made the trip into the cabin a lot easier on my knees. After several weeks, I was still happy with the design and decided to make a permanent step. The only problem with the step mockup was a slight flexing when I put my full weight on it. I decided that a couple of braces underneath the final unit would eliminate that problem and produce a much stronger step. I decided on a 1x2 in the back of the step and a 1x3 in the front. Why the difference? Structurally, the 1x2 would have been more than strong enough. However, the step would be able to slide out to step on and then slide back to make more room in the cabin. I didn’t know if it would have a tendency to slide back and forth so I made the front brace deep enough to accommodate a barrel bolt to lock it in place. The step could have been made from any number of different woods. The mockup was made from cheap pine and it looked it. Mahogany would have made a light, strong and good looking step, but mahogany is expensive and not readily available. If you have access to good mahogany, that would be my first choice. As it turned out, I used common red oak, available at your local home improvement store. Red oak isn’t as rot resistant and durable as white oak, but the price is better than mahogany and it will last if kept varnished. Luckily, both the braces and the step itself could be cut from the readily available four foot long stock. Shorter 1x2 and 2x2 lengths provide the end pieces. The mockup provided the measurements needed. The cuts were all right angles and easily accomplished using a plastic triangle guide and my Ryobi battery powered circular saw. I rounded the bottom corners of both braces with my saber saw and sanded them smooth with a belt sander. Once cut to length, I assembled all the pieces using stainless steel flat head self tapping screws. Oak is a hardwood, so I pilot drilled each hole. I also rubbed the crew threads with beeswax to add in driving the crews tightly without snapping the screw. After I had the step unit assembled, I ran my router, with a round over bit, along all the edges of the step unit, including the end pieces and the braces. I followed this up with final sanding using my random orbit sander and 80 then 150 grit sanding discs.