Like thousands of others this Memorial weekend, my husband and I ventured out to a local lake to enjoy a bit of boating. If you've ever gone to a boat launch during a holiday, you probably understand how stressful and chaotic it can be. Long lines, impatient children, and something always seems to go wrong. We were lucky. We got to the lake early enough to avoid the big crowds at the ramp and were docked and settled before things got busy.
Those who came later in the day, however, weren't so lucky. We watched, completely baffled, as a man spent nearly 30 minutes at the launch, blocking one of the ramps, as he tried to secure his kayak on top of his vehicle. For those of you who may not know, kayaks can be carried and don't require trailers. Why then was he blocking a ramp and preventing others from launching their boats? We have no idea. Or the man who backed his boat into the water only to realize that he had yet to remove any of the straps securing it to the trailer... straps that were now several feet under the water. While his wife and children waited, he had to pull the boat out of the water, remove the straps, and back it down the ramp once more.
Boat launches don't have to be stressful. They certainly don't have to turn us into monsters rampaging down the dock or completely ruin our vacations. If you keep a few friendly reminders handy the next time you visit the boat launch, you will soon understand how a little planning and a quick checklist are all you need to make your day on the water start out right.
Note: Although I worked at a company where I was required to launch various watercraft, I am by no means an expert. Please use this only as a basic guide and consult any and all manuals associated with your specific boat and trailer before launching. This is not an exhaustive list of all the steps required to launch a boat properly and safely.
Upon entering the boat launch, do not go directly to the launch. Don't do it. I don't care if the kids are screaming in the back seat or if there's no one there when you arrive. Your first stop must be the prep area. Some launches have designated lanes for this. Others don't. If your boat launch doesn't, go to a parking spot instead. Once there, use this checklist to help make sure the basic preparations are done before you approach the water.
- Insert/tighten your drain plug(s)
- Remove any straps from the rear of the boat (keep the front secured until the boat is in the water)
- Unplug your trailer lights if not using waterproof, LED lights (this helps prevent bulbs from cracking during the temperature change)
- Check for safety gear including PFDs, whistles, oars, fire extinguishers, lights, buoys, flags, and so on
- Load any optional gear including water bottles, food, towels, and so on
- Remove anything you don't want to keep in the boat (things stored there for travel, for instance)
- Secure a rope to the boat to keep hold of during the launch
- Pay any parking or use fees
The basic idea here is to get as much as you can done before you get to the water. Then, when you approach the launch, you can be on and off the ramp in a matter of minutes.
Always inspect the boat launch before you approach. Look for debris in the water - logs and branches can drift into the shallows, broken glass, metal, and uneven concrete slabs can cause problems. Also look for the slope of the launch. A gradual slope means you'll have to drive the boat farther in before it floats. A steeper slope means you'll need to back up less, but will prove harder to remove the boat later. If you have someone with you, have them wait on the dock, within sight, as you approach. They can tell you when to stop and can hold the rope when the boat is launched. If you are alone, be prepared to tie your boat to the dock. Make sure that whatever you tie the boat to is well-secured.
Return to your vehicle and make your final approach to the launch. For those who launch boats often, backing up becomes second nature. For those of you who may not do this very often or have never done it, practice. Practice at home. Practice a lot. It seems ridiculous, but backing up a trailer is difficult, especially when the boat is very large or very small. Visibility is limited and movements are counter-intuitive. It's better to practice in your driveway or on a dirt road somewhere and take fifty times to get it right than to show up at the boat launch and spend the same fifty times trying while ten others wait in line behind you.
So please, for everyone's sake, practice.
Unless the dock is very long or has several docking bays to which you can secure your boat for any length of time, the name of the game here is speed. Please don't sit at the dock for a long period of time while you arrange things or do more equipment prep while at the launch. Those things were supposed to be done in the prep area. Once the boat is in the water and you have parked your vehicle, it's common courtesy to try to return to the boat and cast off as soon as possible. There are others waiting to use the dock (both outgoing and incoming). Try to make any final arrangements, like loading people into the boat, as quickly and safely as possible and be on your way.
On the Return
When your day is done and you're returning to the launch, do everything in reverse order. People were the last in, now they are the first out. Tie off or have someone hold the boat while you retrieve the vehicle. Approach the launch and park. Pull the boat into place with ropes. Never power load any watercraft! I've seen boaters try to drive their boats onto the trailer only to have it end horribly wrong. It's probably illegal (and if it isn't, it should be) and it can seriously damage your boat. I've seen PWCs overshoot and hit the vehicle. I've seen boats run into trailers that weren't deep enough and gouge out the bow. Be safe, be careful, and use ropes to pull the boat into place.
Once it is secured at the front of the trailer, get back into the vehicle and drive up the launch just far enough for you to do a vegetation check. This means getting out again, or having someone else do it for you, to check the trailer and boat for any plant or animal matter that may have decided to go along for the ride. Remove the debris and then proceed to the prep area or parking lot. Once there, you can go through the checklist again. Make sure that all the necessary straps are in place and tight, test your lights to be sure they are working properly, remove the drain plug, and then remove or secure any gear in the boat.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means. Every trailer and boat combination likely has different quirks or steps that may be required. The more familiar you are with your boat, trailer, and the launch will determine how smoothly and swiftly things go. Please use this as a guide only and add any steps that your situation requires to launch safely.