To prep yourself for the potential craziness at the launch ramp, especially if you’re heading to the water on opening weekend, search online for “boat ramp bloopers” or “boat launch fails.” Be prepared to be inundated with videos of boats (and tow cars) getting into all kinds of trouble: sliding backwards into the water, jackknifing sideways, boats falling off trailers. Yes, boat ramps are Petri dishes where weird problems grow.
With that in mind, here are some tips to keep you, your family and your boat safe during that crucial time between the highway and the high seas.
1. Scope it Out.
Don’t even think about launching at an unfamiliar ramp until you’ve had a chance to check it out. A visual recon mission is best, but if you’re traveling far to get there, online maps and sources such as state waterways departments can provide good intel. At an unfamiliar ramp, don’t be shy about asking other skippers for advice. Boaters are helpful types. They can definitely point out a nearby underwater obstruction or a spot where the ramp apron is undermined and a vehicle’s tires may drop off.
Look at the steepness of the ramp, the quality, the slick spots (algae or weeds at low water?) and the general layout. Check for overhead wires or other obstructions. I’m amazed at the number of situations when a tall VHF antenna tags a power line, zapping the boat.
At the ramp, you should know enough to prep the boat away from the actual launch ramp. Remove the tie-downs, put in the plug(!) and otherwise be ready to go. At this point, get everyone out of the tow car, including pets, and roll the windows down. If everything goes sideways, you may need to get out of a submerging car, and it’s nearly impossible to open a door against water pressure. Besides, the electric windows will short out immediately. Turn off the stereo too, so you can hear outside commands.
2. Child Care
Kids should be in life jackets anytime they are near the ramp, and there should be someone to herd them. Without a shepherd, they can get into a world of trouble by running around to see the many fascinating things at a ramp.
It should go without saying that nobody should be swimming at a launch ramp, and that goes for kids and adults alike. There are just too many props looking for something to dice.
A second reason for tending to the kids is that a launch ramp is a zone full of distracted drivers. They’re all focused on getting their boat in and out of the water and, frankly, common sense goes out the window. They’re looking back when they should be looking forward and vice versa. Be forewarned.
3. Stay Upright & Attached
Boat ramps are, by nature, slippery, so be very careful walking around. Some kinds of algae are almost invisible and make walking on ice look easy. Some skippers pull their boat’s drain plug as they drive up the ramp, which can leave an oily surface. Tread carefully.
Don’t undo the bow wire or strap until the trailer is actually in the water. This may seem counterintuitive, but watch a few videos of tow vehicles that back up, stop suddenly and launch the boat onto the concrete ramp to understand. Keep the boat on the trailer until it floats off.
Put a long bowline on the boat and tie it to the trailer. Too many skippers have launched their boat and watched as it drifts away.
4. Trailer Time
That brings us to trailers. Even if you’ve added nonslip tape to every trailer surface you might step on, be careful! Falling off a trailer can cause more than just a skinned knee: it can break bones and heads. So be very, very careful when you step from a slippery, wet ramp onto the wet and narrow rails of a trailer. This is where most launch ramp injuries happen. Don’t become a statistic.
Probably the second biggest danger zone around a ramp is the trailer winch. If it’s manual, it can easily get away from you, spin in a blur and break a wrist. If it’s electric, it can overload without your knowledge and put huge strains on the trailer wire or strap. The strap or wire should have a breaking strength of at least one-and-a-half times the weight of the boat, and the hook should be another one-and-a-half times stronger. But kinks, frays and nicks can reduce that strength immensely.
Never let anyone stand around the winch or wire, because it can cause serious injuries if it pops and lashes back. That’s one of the benefits of electric winches with remotes: the operator can stand away from the danger zone.