On the list of things people like about boating, you won't find “launching my 25-foot pontoon” on anyone's. Maneuvering such a behemoth backwards down a ramp and into the water without A) scraping along the sides of the dock or retaining wall or B) losing the whole thing into the lake before you're ready, is not all that fun if you're a newcomer to the process. And even longtime boaters feel the stress of being expected to launch their deck boat in record time, the better to appease the increasingly impatient hordes of people in line behind them.
What can exacerbate the problem is that many people develop bad habits right from the start thanks to feeling pressured to get into the water as soon as possible, regardless of the cost. In this way, even the veteran can cause problems, and it's likely no one wants to speak up because hey, the veteran has been doing this for years, so he might know what he’s doing, right?
To help everyone's time at the launch ramp turn into a better time, here are nine tips to teach everyone, from the newest of boat owners to the most experienced sea captain on their umpteenth trip on the reservoir.
- For starters, be sure your trailer is properly hooked to your vehicle. If you get pulled over for failing to signal on the interstate thanks to a faulty or disconnected lighting wire, you'll be stressed before you even get to the lake. Once at the ramp, ensure any lights that cannot stand being submerged in water are disconnected, the better to avoid accidentally electrocuting your helpers, no matter how much you may dislike your cousin A.J.
- Boat engineers spend hours weighing the benefits of being able to drain excess water from your Hurricane against the odds that someone out there will use the same device to accidentally sink their Starcraft Star Step eventually. In the end, they trust you to know where your drain plug is (usually on the outside for a screw-in design, while expanding plugs can be either in or out) and to check to make sure it's in place before placing your craft in the water. Here's a suggestion: give the responsibility for making sure the boat's hull is seaworthy to someone and make it their sole job. Even a 10-year-old can tell when the hull has a hole in it, and while they might not be able to fix the problem, their advance warning can give you time to hurriedly get the plug in place before disaster strikes.
- At the start of every season, make sure the boat is loaded with the equipment it needs: life jackets, orange flag, towels, etc. No one likes it when a boat has to pull out of the ramp and turn around because there weren't enough flotation devices onboard. Periodically check the status of these items so there's one less thing to worry about at the ramp. On a similar note, check the integrity of your boat's hull/pontoons so you aren't left deciding if that's really a hole seconds before launching.
- Before your first time officially launching, take the boat to the ramp on a quiet Tuesday morning and determine exactly how far into the water the trailer needs to go to achieve flotation for your 'toon. Get a feel for it. Find visual markers to the left and right of you, and make note of them. This way, when you're at the ramp, you can quickly back down to exactly the right spot, engage the emergency brake, and get out to help shove off if you need to. Trust us: your fellow boaters will appreciate that.
- While you're at the ramp, inspect it closely from all angles. Everyone knows a boater who bent an axle on his trailer because he was unfamiliar with the angle of the ramp, or where it dropped off. Look for other issues such as a sudden narrowing of the lane, or how much room you have once in the water to maneuver out past the no-wake zone.
- Be sure to keep the boat attached to the trailer until the very moment you're ready to release it into the water. Don't be the guy who thought he'd release the boat from the trailer before getting down the ramp to save time, only to watch his pride and joy slide off the trailer onto the ramp and land with a loud THUNK on the concrete.
- Don't let the built-in audience stress you out while backing into the water. Be careful and as slow as you need to in order to maintain control of the situation. Breathe steadily, count to 10, think of your happy place; just do whatever you need to do to stay calm. The consequences of not being able to is being out of control and possibly driving into another vehicle or injuring someone else on the ramp.
- Be sure everyone involved in the launch clearly understands what his or her job is, even if it's just staying in the truck. Talk about what's expected beforehand, even the night before, if possible, and let people know it's okay to say they aren't sure what they are doing. It's better for Uncle Joey to call out if he can't get the winch working than to push at the deck boat for a few minutes without budging it. Create an environment where everyone feels comfortable admitting to a mistake and you'll get off the ramp more quickly and safely than you might otherwise.
- As a final suggestion, consider enrolling all boat operators in an official boating course through BoatU.S. (www.boatus.org) or a similar organization. Even longtime drivers might benefit from learning how to deal with situations that don't arise very often, and being aware of how to respond to a boat heading directly for you can be the difference between life and death.
There are other things you can do to avoid an accident on the boat ramp, but by following these nine tips, we're confident you'll be the envy of your friends as you confidently, safely and quickly get your 'toon into the water every time this summer.
Taking these steps is definitely work, but as in most areas of life, a little preparation can pay off big dividends in the future.