Boat Ramp Basics: Launch and Load

Hit the water with minimal aggravation.

8th September 2008.
By Jeff Hemmel

img138421They may call us pleasure boaters, but there’s another term that applies to those of us in your average 30-feet and under boats. Try road warriors. The reason is that, unlike those blessed with more LOA, most of us don’t overnight at the marina or private dock. Instead, we need to drive our boats across good ol’ terra firma before ever taking a splash.

All of which brings up one of the most dreaded experiences of owning a small boat — the launch ramp. I’ll pause while you reach for the Tums.

For many, dealing with a launch ramp is one of the most dreaded acts of boating. It’s hectic, there are often people in the way, and patience is in short supply. And then there’s the fact that you have an audience watching and waiting for that first mistake. It’s theater on the slope. If you doubt me, just grab a beach chair and spend a weekend afternoon watching the drama unfold. You’ll see grown adults yell like children, blaming someone else for their bad driving in order to save face; spouses that in any other setting would claim verbal abuse; and maybe, just maybe, even hair-raising suspense, as everyone wonders whether that newbie will actually hit the dock, sink his tow vehicle, or (yes!) dump that pristine fiberglass boat right on the pavement.

Of course, that’s when we’re not simply bored to death waiting for that guy who loves to pull onto the ramp, then decide to ready his lines, load his gear, and do any one of 100 things he should have taken care of before he pulled into position.

The good news? It doesn’t have to be that way. So relax, keep your seat, and read on. Launch Ramp 101 is now in session.

Lesson 1: Stay Off The Water

Yes, you read right. To become skilled at the ramp, first stay away from the water. Instead, hit up an empty parking lot after hours. Use the striped lines, or set up an obstacle of two to mimic the confines at the launch ramp. Then take the wheel, put it in reverse, and practice, practice, practice. There are all sorts of methods to choose from. You can use your mirrors completely, or instead turn and look over your right shoulder. You can keep a hand at the bottom of the wheel to easily remember your turn direction, or just learn to compensate for the fact that the trailer seems to want to turn the opposite way you would expect. Whatever you do, find the method that is most comfortable for you and get used to backing up. Take your time and master the skill now—or pay later.

Lesson 2: Stay Off The Ramp

At least, stay off the ramp until you’re completely ready to launch. Too many boaters pull into place, then proceed to load up the day’s supplies, rig their lines, install the drain plug, etc, etc, etc. Meanwhile, the rest of the crowd seethes in anger.

Look for a marked prep area, or pull over out of the way while you get things settled. Load all your gear, and I mean ALL your gear, have your lines ready, the key in the ignition, the blower on, and your safety lanyard installed. Hopefully you’ve already started your boat at home on a flush hose. That way you won’t have any unexpected surprises when you hit the water. Finally, loosen the winch strap and remove the safety chain.

When you’re set, designate who will be in the boat, who will be in the car, and get ready to roll.

Lesson 3: Stay On Task

When the ramp becomes free — and your next in line — the driver should pull the rig forward, then smoothly back down the ramp until the boat is deep enough in the water to start the engine. Put it in park, set the parking brake to avoid any embarrassment, and signal the boat driver. The boat driver should then move forward to unhook the winch, then take the helm and start the engine. With everything running smoothly, the boat driver should then put the boat in reverse and back off the trailer. Need a little nudge? Signal the tow vehicle driver to give it a little bump in reverse to set the boat free.

Lesson 4: Don’t Stay Around

Once the boat is floating freely, don’t stick around. Instead, clear the launch area for the next person in line. That means the boat driver should back out of the lane and move to an out-of-the way portion of the dock, or if none is available, idle in open water until the car driver returns.

If you’re the car driver, drive off the ramp once the boat is free, and head to the parking area.

Lesson 5: Stay In School

Don’t forget those same lessons when it comes time to load up at the end of the day. Drop the tow vehicle driver off at the dock, and then get out of the way until he or she returns with the car and gets into position. Once the trailer is in the water, drive the boat onto the trailer, secure the winch and safety strap, and get up and off the ramp. You can get your stuff out of the boat when you’re in the parking lot.

As to your homework, teach a few newbies what you just learned. I’ll thank you the next time I’m waiting in line at the ramp.

Editor’s Note: Jeff Hemmel is a contributing editor to Boating, the nation’s largest recreational boating magazine.


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About the author:

Jeff Hemmel

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Jeff Hemmel writes for boats.com, Boating, PersonalWatercraft.com, and Powersports Business. The former Senior Editor at Watercraft World, Jeff is a multi-time award winner as well as a 2008 inductee into the IJSBA Hall of Fame. His first book, "The Anti-Pirate Potato Cannon...and 101 Other Things For Young Mariners To Try, Do, & Build On the Water," received a bronze medal in the 2010 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards. For more info, visit Jeff Hemmel's website.

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