Launch Ramp Safety Tips for Boaters

Steps to ensure smooth launch and retrieval at any boat ramp.

Launch Ramp Safety Tips for Boaters
A vast fleet of trailer boats funnels in and out of launch ramps, making such facilities crowded and precarious at times.David Shuler

Tucked away in ­driveways, backyards, garages and self-storage lots are approximately 11 million trailer boats, based on my extrapolations of the most recent statistics from the National Marine Manufacturers Association (see sidebar). That helps explain why launch ramps become congested as this vast fleet funnels to and from the water via these portals to adventure.

Even without crowds, however, coastal launch ramps pose challenges wrought by factors such as tidal fluctuations, strong currents, slippery pavement and, in some cases, surge or wave action. Veteran trailer-­boating anglers have learned to handily meet such challenges, particularly at ramps that they visit on a regular basis.

Yet even longtime trailer boaters can make mistakes when using ramp facilities that are unfamiliar to them.

Launch ramps vary in hours of operation, cost, rules of usage, road access, traffic flow, ramp angle, courtesy docks, parking, navigation to open water, and how far the paved ­portion of the ramp (known as the apron) extends into the water.

So, whether you’re a ­veteran venturing to a new ramp or you’re new to trailer boating, it pays to review the basics of launching and loading your boat, including some details that you might not have considered but which can make launching easier, quicker, safer and possibly less embarrassing.

1. Web Scouting
If you're planning to use an unfamiliar launch ramp, conduct some internet scouting ahead of time. This takes on additional importance when the site is a considerable distance from your home, making it impractical to eyeball the area beforehand.

Online you can check out the website for the facility (often a city or county site), visit local boating and fishing forums, research any issues you might encounter (such as shoals or shallow obstructions), and view satellite imagery. Online resources such as Google Maps can help get you there, and nautical charts, such as those found on the Navionics Webapp, can show the way out by water.

Launch Ramp Safety Tips for Boaters
Avoid problems by planning ahead.Jim Hendricks

2. Hours and Costs
Internet scouting saved me some major frustration and time last year. I had planned to trailer my boat to an unfamiliar ramp about two hours away and launch around 3 a.m. to head out for an offshore fishing trip. However, a check of the official website revealed that the facility did not open until 6 a.m. Miscue averted.

Online we found another ramp close by that was open 24 hours. A number of states and counties offer sites and apps that help you find a suitable launch ramp for the area you want to fish. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, for example, offers the Florida Public Boat Ramp Finder.

Internet research can also reveal if there’s a monetary charge for using the ramp and whether the facility accepts cash or credit cards. At some launch ramps, it’s a cash-only gate and no change is provided, so you need to bring the exact amount. Otherwise, you’re stuck at the gate without the right bills, blocking access to trailer boaters behind you. Talk about embarrassing.

3. Site Inspection
Even with online research, try to physically scout an unfamiliar site ahead of time, particularly if you're planning to launch in the dark. Daylight reconnaissance is the best way to do this. If your first experience with a ramp takes place in the dark, park your rig in an out-of-the-way spot and take at least 10 minutes to walk around and inspect the ramp angle. Check for facets such as slippery pavement, the presence of current or surge, access to courtesy docks, and parking availability.

A daytime site inspection a few years ago alerted me to danger at an ­unfamiliar ramp. I noted that the ramp had a short apron, and I actually witnessed the axles of a tandem-axle trailer drop off the pavement edge and into a trench during a low-tide period. The axles hung up on the concrete ledge, leading to some anxious moments as the driver spun the wheels on his tow vehicle but went nowhere.

A rising tide finally floated the trailer, and he was able escape. I made sure launch and retrieval took place during higher-tide phases when using this ramp. Also, on ramps plagued by swift tidal flow, launching and retrieving during slack-tide periods can make things easier and less fretful.

Launch Ramp Safety Tips for Boaters
Roll down the windows on the tow vehicle when launching and retrieving your boat. This makes communication easier between the boat crew and vehicle driver.Bill Doster

4. Ramp Procedures
Whether the ramp is one that's familiar or new to you, the basics remain the same. Review the sidebar below containing launch and retrieval checklists. These serve as primers for newbies and refreshers for veterans.

However, there are a few basics that bear reinforcement. One is remembering to put in the drain plug. I do this at home before I even leave. Also, don’t wait until you’re on the ramp to get the boat ready to launch. This sin is compounded when the ramp is crowded. Make a habit of using the ­designated make-ready area to prepare for launch. Use a parking spot to prep your rig for the tow home.

Also, keep the windows open (and turn off the stereo). This makes it easier to communicate with the boat operator — a key element of launch-ramp safety. It also helps ensure that the occupants can escape should the vehicle inadvertently roll back into the water. Don’t scoff — it happens.

Launch Ramp Safety Tips for Boaters
Keep your crew and other boaters safe by taking your time.Jim Hendricks

5. Take It Slowly
Finally, I want to emphasize the virtue of patience. Rushing through the launch and retrieval process can lead to mistakes, like starting the engine before you've tilted the drive down, or forgetting to tilt the engine up before pulling the trailer out of the water.

Patience gains even greater importance when the launch ramp brims with other trailer boaters. Maintaining a courteous, respectful and patient attitude toward fellow boating anglers — even when you’re anxious to get the boat in the water and go fishing — is the sign of a true leader.

Ramp Checklists
Pre-Launch
•Use the designated make-ready area to prep the boat.
•Install the drain plug.
•Remove the transom tie-downs and engine support.
•Disconnect the trailer lights.
•Load the gear.
•Ready both the dock lines and fenders.

Launch
•Back down far enough to allow engine-cooling water to be picked up.
•Set the tow vehicle's emergency brake and put transmission in Park.
•Lower the outboard.
•Start the engine.
•Disconnect the bow strap.
•Proceed to launch.
•Once the boat is clear, pull your vehicle/trailer away from the ramp and park.

Retrieval
•Back the trailer into the water, but not too deeply — just enough for the bunks or rollers to cradle the hull.
•The skipper should approach the trailer slowly.
•Nudge the boat's bow into the center of the trailer; let it settle before winching or powering it to the bow stop.
•Attach/tighten the bow strap; attach the safety chain.
•Clear the ramp lanes as quickly and safely as possible.
•Reconnect the trailer lights, tie-downs and engine support; lower the antennas.