Perhaps the greatest fear a trailer boater has, except for not being able to back up smoothly in front of spectators, is having the tires start to slip as the boat — and tow vehicle — goes into the water. A quick “Launch Ramp Follies” search of YouTube yields dozens of videos that show sport utility vehicles underwater and pickup trucks being dragged out as water pours from the cab.
Many factors can lead to this slow-motion disaster: launch ramps slippery with algae, steep ramps and tow cars pulling heavy boats. Here’s how to avoid going swimming.
First, eyeball the ramp and talk to other skippers. If you can’t walk down to the water’s edge without slipping, stay away or find a spot on the ramp that isn’t so slippery.
Once you’re set to launch, go slow. Really slow. The gang at the tiki bar overlooking the ramp was split on whether to use reverse all the way to the water or go into neutral on the slope and just roll backwards, out of gear, riding the brake. I like neutral, because then I know I’m never going to hit the wrong pedal. The weight of the rig pulls the tow vehicle backwards, but slowly.
As a precaution, the driver should be the only person in the car, seatbelt off and windows down, in case he has to make a hasty departure.
If it ever gets to the point where the boat is ready to launch and the driver has to get out of the car, he should apply the handbrake. Hard. Put the tow car in park or the first manual gear forward. If you don’t have to get out of the car to launch the boat, stay behind the wheel, don’t use the parking brake and keep your foot on the brakes. Hard. The parking brake only locks the rear wheels on most cars, so keeping your foot on the brake adds the friction of two more tires higher up the slope to prevent slippage.
Feel the car starting to slip? You have a couple of choices that may, or may not, work. Pump the brakes several times, which may help the tires grab. Or drop into low and try to power out moving forward. Some of the tiki hut watchers said they’d seen drivers literally smoke the tires, but they agreed that was one way to burn through the algae.
Launch regularly at a slimy ramp? Make a couple of tire chocks out of lumber. A 4-inch-by-4-inch board works best. Tie ropes to them so they’ll follow the tow car up the ramp, and set them about where you expect either the front or rear tires to stop for launching. They are especially useful on ramps that have a grooved finish where the lumber can snag.
Another possibility — beforehand, unfortunately — is to rethink the tow car’s tires. In many cases, so-called “off-road” tires, or snow tires, have less actual tread on the road than a conventional tire because of their deep sipes or grooves.
One experienced trailerboater said he always carries a bag of sand in the back of his truck for just such a slippery slope, and another has a 10-foot trailer extension that allows him to keep the tow vehicle on the flat (and dry) area when launching.
Other Ramp Crises
You back the trailer into the water to retrieve your boat but find that you can’t pull the trailer out because the wheels have dropped over the edge of the paved or concrete launch ramp. What has happened is too many skippers have raced their boat engines to load onto their trailer, and those powerful underwater currents have eroded the bottom away from the end of the ramp. This is usually a low-tide/low-water problem, but it is still your problem.
Start by unloading the boat, because you’ll never pull the weight of the boat and trailer up a 2-foot wall without a skyhook. Have someone deal with the boat separately, so you can focus on getting the trailer wheels up onto the ramp again.
If you have room, crank the car wheel hard left or right and back up slowly as far as you can go, being careful not to T-bone and bend your trailer. Get right to the water’s edge, straighten the wheel, go forward and repeat the process. Doing so allows you to take the trailer out at an angle. The trailer wheels are more likely to climb the edge if it’s just one side at a time. Pull forward slowly and see if one side pops free, then get the other side onto the ramp. To retrieve your boat in the same spot, back up carefully to the ramp drop-off, but no farther. You can usually find the drop-off easily by having someone wade (carefully) to the edge and guide you, or by using a boat hook from inside the boat to probe the depths.
This is one of those times when it’s a good idea to talk to other skippers familiar with a ramp, because they’ve probably gone “over the edge” themselves and know where the safe launch areas are located.