Learn to Love the Launch

Avoid 6 of the biggest mistakes boaters make at the ramp.

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Launch ramps are like fast-food drive-throughs: they’re made to get in and get out. When boaters aren’t prepared, the natural flow breaks down, and that’s when tempers flare. If you find yourself making rookie launch ramp mistakes — especially with the season about to arrive — we have advice to help you fix the problem and bring peace to the ramp.

1. How’s the weather?
PROBLEM: Not following the weather forecast.
SOLUTION: Brad Schoenwald is still surprised boaters don’t check the marine forecast and tides, especially given the availability of marine forecast apps for smartphones, such as Buoyweather or Marine Weather by Accuweather.

Schoenwald, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard and is an instructor with Tres Martin Driving School, said boaters should scout launch ramps they’re not familiar with. “When I went to the ramp at Flathead Lake in Montana, I had never been there before, so the night before we walked down to the boat ramp and checked it out,” said Schoenwald, who lives in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. “I went to check on depth and check on lengths, and looked at forecasts, so when I got there the next morning I wasn’t the oddball out.”

2. Not Prepared to Go
PROBLEM: Loading the boat while it’s on the trailer in the water.
SOLUTION: There are good reasons for staging areas at launch ramps, foremost among them keeping an orderly flow and reducing mistakes. At the staging area is where to load coolers and equipment, check the drain plug, turn on batteries, tie a line to the center cleat and remove all the tiedowns except the bow strap.

The staging area is the place to review your checklist. It’s best to keep young children in the tow vehicle or with adult supervision on the courtesy dock.

“The worst thing you can do is have the boat unprepared to launch,” said Capt. Kevin Hennessey, an instructor with U.S. Powerboating and owner of Cape Fear Sailing Academy in Southport, N.C. “It should take you no more than, honestly, 45 to 90 seconds to launch a boat if you’ve got everything ready to go.”

3. Launch Ramp Hog
PROBLEM: Boaters who take two or more “lanes.”
SOLUTION: It’s not only rude to hog the ramp, but nothing gets boaters hotter than having to wait because someone couldn’t back up the trailer properly. To avoid being that person, adhere to the old adage that practice makes perfect.

Hennessey recommends taking the tow vehicle and trailer to a large parking lot and practicing figureeights. Practice driving forward and backing up to see how the trailer reacts to steering input. Set up cones to simulate a narrow launch ramp, and then once you’re comfortable, visit the ramp, preferably midweek, to practice. Some beginners may want to add a backup camera or buy a tow vehicle that offers backup assist.

“I tell people nothing can’t be fixed if you’re going slow,” said Hubbard Putney, a salesman at Atlantic Marine in Wilmington, N.C. “Take your time, be prepared. If the angle is not right, stop and pull up a little and readjust.”

PROBLEM: Equipment problems on the launch ramp.
SOLUTION: Maintenance isn’t just for the boat but also for the vehicle towing it. The gross weight should not exceed the vehicle’s tow capacity and its brakes need to be serviced regularly.

Ted Bremer, the dockmaster at The Dana on Mission Bay in San Diego, watched an outmatched RV go into the bay. “He was taking his boat over to the courtesy docks located at the launch ramp and his parking brake must have failed,” Bremer said. “The bay swallowed the whole rig.”

But Schoenwald said incidents like that are human failures rather than equipment failures.

“[The emergency brake] might have been worn out and you didn’t replace it or fix it as needed, but it didn’t fail,” Schoenwald said. “The idea the truck will slide all the way down the boat ramp is just not going to happen. It just isn’t.”

5. Do Nothing
PROBLEM: Watching people struggle to launch or retrieve boats.
SOLUTION: It may be fun to watch and laugh as a couple struggles to get their boat on the trailer, but why not offer to assist them?

“People are too proud to ask for help,” Hennessey said. “I will go down there and say, ‘Look, I teach this for a living, so let me help you.’ I want to expedite them getting out, so I can get my boat in and alleviate some stress for them.”

Bremer has seen some ugly incidents when boaters don’t ask for help.

“I’m sure some marriages have gotten on the rocks from the yelling I’ve heard between wife and husband,” Bremer said.

6. Abusing the Courtesy Docks
PROBLEM: Boaters who overstay their welcome on the courtesy docks.
SOLUTION: Courtesy docks should be used only for a few minutes to pick up and drop off passengers. To keep the dock from turning into a loading zone, the boat should be fully loaded before backing it into the water.

The same applies for boaters returning to the launch ramp. After dropping off passengers, go out and idle in the water until the trailer is ready. It’s best to keep the boat running, on the off chance the boat won’t restart. On busy holiday weekends, some law enforcement agencies will write tickets, to reinforce that courtesy only goes so far.


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