They’re one of those things on board that people don’t think about until they need one, but if you’ve ever transited through rough water on a boat without adequate grab handles, you’ll never take them for granted again. Here’s what to look for in grab rails and grab handles aboard your next boat.
The American Boat and Yacht Council, which sets the recommended guidelines for boatbuilders to follow, lays out the safety requirements for grab rails and grab handles in its Standard H-41. In it, ABYC states that handholds are required on “weather decks” (areas exposed to weather where crew walk or stand); to assist crew using companionways, ladders and stairways; and in exterior seating areas used when the vessel is underway.
In addition, any grab rail must meet a minimum height requirement of 24 inches above the deck. On a boat with only handholds, “the maximum spacing between handholds must not exceed 4 feet.” A handhold should also be within reach of any boarding ladders.
Handholds and rails made of piping or tubing — what you’ll find on most recreational powerboats — should have a diameter between 0.75 and 1.5 inches. (Nonround holds should have a circumference between 2.35 inches and 4.7 inches.) The handhold should be installed at a 45-degree angle to the boat structure or deck. Knowing the ABYC recommendations, here’s what to look for aboard your boat.
Structural Integrity The sturdiest rails and handholds are installed with through-bolts and a backing plate — made of wood, composite or aluminum — to distribute the pull forces.
Material Matters Many recreational boats have handholds made of composite, aluminum or stainless steel. The best ones, particularly for saltwater use, are marine-grade 316L stainless steel.
Ergonomic The best handholds aren’t necessarily round. Oval or even diamond-shaped (with rounded edges) holds can be more comfortable to grip.
Recessed The trend in open-bow boats is to install a recessed rail topside in the gunwale around the perimeter of the bow seating. This allows passengers to grab it no matter how or where they’re sitting or lounging in the forward seats.
Location, Location Sometimes builders put handholds in odd places to meet ABYC requirements, yet the rails or handles are awkward to grab while underway. For passenger seats in front of a dual-console layout or along a three-person transom bench, make sure the handholds are located in places where you don’t have to contort to grab them.
One Hand For The Boat Experienced boaters live by the rule of always having one hand on the boat while moving about, either above or belowdecks, so any part of the boat that can potentially be grabbed will be. This includes windshield frames, seat backs, Bimini tops, T-top supports, towers, arches, or even fiddled counters on tables. All of these items should be installed as sturdily as possible with this in mind.
Quick Tip: The ABYC Standard H-41 states that a handhold or grab rail “shall withstand a load of 400 pounds in any direction, at any point, along their length without failure such as they no longer perform their intended purpose.”