Some helpful tips on boat launching in time for the holiday

Story by Ray Sasser
The Dallas Morning News
July 1, 2011
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DALLAS — Boating bottlenecks usually occur at the boat ramp, where vessels are launched and retrieved. Most ramps have only two to four launch lanes, but that’s not the real issue. Too many boaters do not know how to effectively back a boat trailer.

There’s a reason you seldom see a fishing boat jackknifed on the ramp. Fishing is a year-round sport, and anglers get a lot of practice launching and retrieving their boats. Recreational boaters? Not so much.

Many of them launch only a dozen or so times each year, and that’s not enough experience to master the tricky art of backing a trailer. Trailering skills are crucial, because the boat ramp is an unforgiving environment filled with boaters in a hurry to launch. It’s a tough crowd and there’s a lot of pressure. Learning boat-backing skills at a crowded ramp is like learning to shoot free throws at the NBA Finals.

An empty parking lot is the best place to learn how to back a trailer. A church parking lot when there are no services is pretty much ideal. There’s a lot of space to maneuver and enough parking stripes to provide a simulated launch ramp lane.

Backing is often difficult for inexperienced boaters because the trailer coupling pivots on the trailer hitch ball. The trick is to keep the trailer going backward in a straight line, but that’s easier said than done.

Steering adjustments should be done in small increments. Turn the steering wheel sharply and the trailer response is magnified.

Properly adjusted side mirrors help keep tabs on the trailer. So does a backup camera available as optional equipment on many trucks and SUVs. Bear in mind that the trailer is easier to see with the boat sitting on it. It’s more difficult to see when the boat is in the water and you’re backing down to retrieve it. Practice makes perfect.

Launching and retrieving a boat can be done solo — I’ve done it many times — but the single-handed process takes more than twice as long. If you’re in the ramp line behind a solitary boater, volunteer to help. Helping a fellow boater is good manners, and you’ll benefit by getting in the water quicker.

The ideal situation for boat launching is two experienced boaters, one to back the trailer down and the other in the boat driver’s seat to crank the boat’s engine and back it off the trailer. Done correctly, the process takes about two minutes of ramp time.

While the boat driver backs out away from the ramp, out of everyone’s way, the vehicle driver parks the tow vehicle.

Before blocking the ramp with your boat, you should make certain it’s ready to go. Check the battery to see if it’s hot and the battery terminals are connected, put all your gear in the boat, remove the trailer tie-downs and make sure you’ve got the drain plug in place.

If you take gear in and out of your boat, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to laminate a checklist that you can go over before the launch, just as a pilot goes over his checklist before takeoff. Bass boaters seldom have a problem with the transfer of equipment because a bass boat is essentially a high-speed tackle box, and the gear stays aboard the boat at all times.

Weekend tip

  • Save empty plastic milk jugs, wash them out thoroughly, then fill them with water and stick them in the freezer. One or two gallon-sized blocks of ice will keep drinks and snacks cool without getting the contents of an ice chest wet.
  • As the ice melts in the milk jug, it provides cold drinking water. The milk jugs can be refrozen and save the money you would have spent on bags of ice.

(c) 2011, The Dallas Morning News.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Ray Sasser


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