When we purchased our "last boat" (Aloha 32 designed by Mark Ellis), I was pleased that a drop-down stern ladder was standard equipment, but I wondered how I could use it if I fell overboard with no one around.
So, for all you sailors, here's one of those fun-and-useful knots with which to practice and experiment this summer. The idea is to tie the ladder up with a "slip" knot. If the line loops to about 30 cm above the water, it can be released by a swimmer.
First, your need a length of slippery line (thin braided nylon) to tie between your rail and the bottom of your ladder. With the ladder down, tie one end securely to the bottom rung and tie the other end to a railing near this knot when the ladder is up (you will adjust the length later).
# 1 Pull up the ladder (a loop forms between the ladder and boat) to a stern rail. Pull a small bight (loop) in the line under and around the stern rail (ring in #1). Pull the standing part of the line (tied to the ladder) through the first bight to create a second small bight. Hold this bight with one hand.
# 2 With your other hand, pull the free part of the line up and through the second bight making a third bight. Pull the bight through until it's about and 8-10 cm. long.
# 3 Tighten the knot until the ladder is held snugly against the railing. A bit of practice is required to make the knot tight enough to hold but not so tight as to bind when released.
To release the ladder, yank sharply on the line holding the knot. Be sure your aren't directly under the ladder!
Finally adjust the length of the loop so it is above the water but within reach of a swimmer. A side benefit is that your ladder line won't foul the prop and is easy to use if you forget to secure the ladder before you leave (yes, you will forget).
The Tumble Hitch is a possible improvement on this hitch. The main difference is the standing part remains passive during tying. You finish the hitch with the free end of the rope instead of standing part, making it easier to tie.