I have been curious about the “Jacob’s ladder”, the old name for the ladder used by pilots to get on board and disembark from a ship. Not wanting to remain ignorant of the subject, I did some research. The information I have gathered thus far is interesting. Indeed, it is food for thought.

“Jacob’s ladder” alludes to the ladder which Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, saw in a dream: “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” (Genesis 28:12 King James Version)

Jacob’s Dream, 1805
William Blake (English, 1757–1827)
Courtesy of the British Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Meaningful name for a ladder

A rope ladder with wooden rungs may not take anyone to Heaven. But climbing it is definitely no breeze. It takes time and a bit of struggling. Looking up, the pilot may get the feeling that he is reaching for the sky. In a sense, the pilotage profession is a Jacob’s ladder. One has to go through a number of rungs before he is appointed as a pilot. There are no angels to shorten the process of training and certification.

Pilot ladder, 2018
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ens. Samantha Penate

Jakobs ladder, 1711–1728
Anonymous Dutch artist
Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Lost in the fog of Time

The true origin of the nautical Jacob’s ladder has been lost in the fog of Time. Searching for the informatiion on etymology websites yields frustrating results. Under the entry for “Jacob”, the Online Etymology Dictionary states that “Jacob’s ladder, in various transferred uses from 1733, is from Genesis xxviii.12″.  No reference is made at all to its marine application.

Jacob’s ladder is listed in Patterson’s Illustrated Nautical Dictionary, Unabridged (first published in 1891) with the following definition:

A ladder with rope sides and wooden rungs, used for getting into the lower rigging on vessels with very high bulwarks, and for getting up to the jack cross-trees the ladder hanging abaft the mast.

One can safely assume that the Bible-inspired name was in use long before Patterson’s dictionary came out. “Originally, the jacob’s ladder was a network of line leading to the skysail on wooden ships,” notes the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command website. Wikipedia identifies two types of Jacob’s ladder: the flexible hanging ladder and the kind found on square-rigged ships (pictured below):

Crew on Prince William climbing onto the main-top using the port Jacob’s ladder.
Photo by Pete Verdon
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) licence

Ringing out the old

The shipping world loves to ring out the old and ring in the new. Today, everyone — pilots, pilot’s associatons, the IMO, P&I clubs, and the maritime press—calls a pilot ladder a pilot ladder. Why associate it with a Hebrew patriarch and his dream of a ladder with angels ascending and descending the steps? In the mechanistic world of shipping, symbolism and archetypes have no place.

Somehow this saddens me. After all, what would shipping be without the enriching power of tradition?

Check out this interesting article:

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