Embarkation & Disembarkation of Passenger Vessels Expert Article

In this article, Marine Operations Expert and retired Captain, Hendrik Keijer discusses processes and responsibilities for Captains and crew to provide safe embarkation (entry) and disembarkation (exit) of passenger vessels.

The marine experts at Robson Forensic are regularly retained to investigate incidents involving passengers and crew who fall or are injured in the process of boarding or disembarking ferries, cruise ships, and other passenger vessels.

Responsibility for Safe Embarkation & Disembarkation of Vessels

Vessel owners and operators are required to guarantee the seaworthiness of their vessel. Under Maritime Law, a vessel is considered unseaworthy when it is not kept to standard or deemed unsafe.

A question frequently raised in the maritime passenger transportation sector is whether or not seaworthiness starts at the gangway, and ends at the gangway on completion of a voyage. In other words, does a vessel bear responsibility to the safe boarding and disembarkation of her passengers? The answer to this question is that it is the responsibility of a vessel’s owner and operator to ensure passengers and crew are provided safe access to and from a vessel.

The facility aspects of piers and docks need to be taken into account by vessels. A safety inspection by boat crew of the pier/dock area is recommended. Dockside hazards should be identified and passengers should be made aware in order to prevent personal injury. Positioning crew member(s) shore side to assist passengers on moving floating docks, transitioning onto ramps, and providing necessary guidance are a few examples where diligence may prevent mishaps.

A Captain cannot tie his vessel up and tell his guests to leap ashore without ensuring proper means are provided to facilitate safe embarkation or disembarkation.

Vessel Movement alongside a Dock

Embarking and disembarking a vessel cannot be compared to anything one encounters on land. When a vessel moves, a gangway which is connected to the vessel will also move. Transitioning from a dock onto or from an erratically moving boat can be a risky undertaking.

The following motions, or a combination thereof, can be encountered when access is gained to, or from a vessel.

i. Rolling movement

Sideways rolling movement from port (left) to starboard (right) and vice versa.

A gangway’s slope will be influenced by the rolling motion of a boat along a dock.

ii. Sway

A vessel can move bodily sideways to port and sideways to starboard. A gangway will move across the dock with the sideways movement of the boat.

iii. Pitch

The vessel’s bow can rise whilst the stern will lower and vice versa. A gangway will rise and fall with the movement of the vessel.

iv. Yaw

A vessel’s bow and stern can turn around an imaginary vertical axis. A gangway will move over the dock in this instance.

v. Surge

A vessel can move forward or backwards. A surging vessel will result in a gangway shift.

vi. Tidal

Tidal movements will result in varying gangway slopes.

vii. Movement of a floating dock.

Not all docks platforms are steady. Passengers should be made aware when they are to transition onto, or from, a floating dock. Floating docks may be subject to motion caused by various factors such as rocking boats, wind waves, and wake waves of passing vessels.

An unsteady platform will require vigilance by a vessel operator to provide precautionary safety measures for his or her passengers extending to the dock area.

Particular attention and assistance is recommended at the following points of transition.

  • Point of vessel transition, the gangway and the floating dock.
  • Transition from a floating dock onto, or from, a steady platform. E.g. a ramp.

Means of Access to Passenger Vessels

Different means of access are provided on cruise ships, casino vessels, ferries, charter and recreational vessels. The various methods differ due to varying factors such as:

  • The design of a vessel and the location of the point(s) of entry/exit
  • Types and layout of a dock; e.g. floating dock, fixed pier, available space on the dock
  • Mooring arrangement
  • Tidal fluctuations
  • Vessels’ exposure along the dock to waves and swell

i. Gangway access.

Photograph no.1

The level between a dock and a vessel’s entrance is rarely even.

The height difference is dependent on the movement of a vessel, the location of the embarkation door on board and tidal fluctuations which take a vessel up higher during high tide, and lower during low tide.

A gangway can be used to bridge the gap between a dock and a vessel. Gangways differ in size and design and are dependent on the type and design of a vessel and dock layouts. Regardless of the design of a gangway, vessel operators should ensure safe access to and from a vessel is provided.

ii. Platform and/or stepped access,

Platforms or steps are used to facilitate the embark/debark process to provide an even level between a boat and the point of embarkation/disembarkation aboard. Steps are often used when a dock does not provide enough space for a ramped gangway.

The platform on the top of the step can be combined with a short gangway. On some occasions no means are utilized to span the gap between a platform and a vessel with passengers literally having to take a leap of faith. In this case it is advisable to provide assistance and inform guests of the dangers.

Photograph no.2

Passenger Vessel Safety Access Precautions

Safe access to and from a vessel requires diligence from boat operators and their owners. Some of the major safety enhancements are outlined below.

i. Safety Nets

Safety nets provide an additional barrier between the gangway and the water. The space between a dock and a vessel can be wide or it can be small, and it is affected by the size of the fenders used by the boat and/or the fenders of the dock itself.

Vessels can sway significantly whilst alongside. Especially when swells and waves enter harbors in certain weather conditions but also when other vessels pass by. When vessels sway they move away from the pier in one instance and move back the next, during these movements they may also move up, down, forward and backwards. The lines used to tie up vessels are subject to stretch and allow this movement to occur. A vessel needs to be safely moored with its lines taut to minimize this movement. A gangway connected to the vessel will move when the vessel moves.

Photographs 1 and 3 show wheels installed under a gangway to facilitate back and forth movement with a vessel. Unsuspecting passengers will not be able to judge when a gangway will roll towards their feet. This can present a dangerous condition and adequate staffing is highly recommended.

Photograph no.3

When a few tons of vessel surges back to the dock it will compress the fenders and the gap between the pier and dock may decrease significantly. In some instances the hull of a vessel may touch the dock face which could consist of pilings or worse, a concrete wall face. One can imagine what would happen if a person landed in the water between the vessel and a dock in these conditions.

The water and space between a ship and a dock is a dangerous area and preventative safety precautions such as the proper placement of netting under a gangway are advised.

ii. Handrails

Proper railings on a gangway should be provided for safety reasons. They should be of sufficient strength and height and able to withstand the force of a passenger losing his or her footing and seeking hold of the railing. The following photograph depicts a hazardous condition to those boarding or disembarking due to the lack of a handrail.

Photograph no.4

iii. Gangway Slope / Anti-Skid Material

The steepness of a gangway needs to be taken into account when assessing the safety of a boarding arrangement. The slope of a gangway will change due to tidal fluctuations, is dependent on the length of the gangway and will vary with the movement of a vessel. Protected harbors will be mainly calm but in certain wind conditions or due to the wake of passing vessels, waves, and consequent vessel’s and gangway movement needs to be taken into consideration. An anti-skid surface should be part of a safe gangway.

Photograph no.5

iv. Gangway load.

Lines of guests may form at gangways. Gangways should be certificated and employees need to have an understanding of the limitations of their gangways. It is important to understand that only a certain load can be placed on the gangway. This means crowd control will be required when lines form.

v. Illumination

Fishing Charters often depart in the early hours of the morning. Other forms of passenger transport by vessel, such as ferries, often operate during hours of darkness. Proper lighting at a gangway or step/platform setup may be advisable.

vi. Human factors

Ferries, casino boats, cruise ships, fishing charters, recreational boats and others types of vessels carry passengers who are not necessarily familiar with the motion of a boat on the open water. Due to the vessel’s movement out on the open waters the body’s balance may be disrupted. This imbalance can lead to land sickness. The persistent feeling of a rocking motion and sense of imbalance can persist shortly after disembarking a boat even on steady ground ashore.

The erratic movement of a vessel alongside a dock, combined with possible imbalance of disembarking guests, makes it imperative that proper precautions are taken by vessel personnel to ensure passengers safely transition to the dock.


Gangways and points of embarkation to and from vessels have been identified as potentially hazardous by various regulatory bodies. Standards for gangways apply to USCG inspected and certificated vessels.

In May 2008 the IMO adopted SOLAS regulation II-1/3-9 concerning the ‘Means of embarkation on and disembarkation from ships’, which entered into force on the 1st January 2010. The new regulation refers to the construction, installation, maintenance and inspection/survey of means of embarkation and disembarkation requirements as detailed in MSC.1/Circ.1331. Additional gangway standards can be found in ISO standard 7061:2015, the ADA and OSHA.

The recreational boating sector remains unregulated with regards to safe vessel access. This does, however not take away a Captain’s responsibility of ensuring the safety of his passengers and crew.

Investigating Passenger Injuries

The Maritime Practice Group at Robson Forensic is uniquely qualified to investigate and reconstruct marine mishaps and other incidents that occur on or around the waterfront.

Among our ranks you can find marine safety experts and digital forensics experts from the U.S. Coast Guard, veteran engineers and ship captains from the Merchant Marine, as well as esteemed professors from the nation’s leading maritime universities.

For more information contact the author of this article or submit an inquiry.

Featured Expert

Hendrik J. Keijer, Marine Operations Expert

Hendrik J. Keijer

Marine Operations Expert
Captain Henk Keijer is both a Master Mariner and Marine Engineer. For nearly 25 years Captain Keijer operated a variety of vessels ranging from cruise ships to cargo ships and smaller boats. He safely… read more.

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