Knowing how to launch a boat on a trailer is a skill no one is born with. It’s that part of every boating trip that no one really likes and can be difficult for even experienced boat owners. While “fail videos” of boat launch disasters are popular across social media, what most non-boaters who see them, and even some boat owners, fail to realize is just how difficult launching a boat can be under the wrong conditions. In this article we’re going to help you develop a strategy for launching your boat that will make your trips to the boat ramp safer and hassle free.
Prep Your Boat Before Launch
There are a few things you just shouldn’t do when boating and being the person who is loading their coolers and gear into their boat in the middle of a busy boat ramp is near the very top of the list. Just don’t do it! Most boat ramps have an area off to the side where you can load and prep your boat beforehand and then launch at the actual ramp when ready. When prepping your boat for launch there are a couple things you should check to make sure your boat is ready to go in the water.
Check the Plug
Check to insure your boat’s plug is inserted properly and any other thru-hulls that should be closed are closed. Boats launched without their plug in sink very quickly so while it sounds like common sense, double check to make sure the plug is in and your boat won’t be taking on water from there or any other location once it’s in the water.
Check the Batteries
Launching a boat with a dead battery is embarrassing. When you’re loading your boat at the staging area at your ramp, or even before you leave your home, check to make sure your boat’s batteries are fully charged and capable of starting the engine. An easy way to do this is to key your boat’s ignition switch to the “on” position, don’t turn all the way to the “start” position, you just want to key to on and have your engines gauges power on. Most modern outboard engines will display the voltage they’re receiving. A fully charged 12 volt battery should display a reading of 12.8 volts. While what your exact engine needs to start will vary depending on the engine, a battery reading in the 12.8v range is indicative that your batteries are charged and should be capable of starting your outboard. Some outboards may be capable of starting at slightly lower voltages, and the voltage displayed on your dash gauge isn’t always what your engine is receiving but we’re trying to go boating here not perform boat maintenance so a reading of 12.8v means we should be good to go.
Check the Trailer
By this point you likely have already trailered your boat from your home or its storage location to the ramp so your trailer should be working fine. However, depending on your trailer’s set up and how you usually launch your boat you may decide to unhook the safety chain and the winch strap. This is a matter of personal preference and depends a lot on your launching style as well as how you have your trailer set up but it can be a good way to save time on the ramp and avoid the person driving the tow vehicle from getting out of it on a potentially slippery ramp. At this point you should also remove any other straps you have attaching the boat to the trailer such as tie-downs to the stern or straps over the bow or stern of the boat. A boat that’s still strapped to the trailer at the stern is going to have a hard time floating so make sure the stern can float free once it hits the water.
Ready for Launch
We’ve loaded everything aboard, checked the plug, the batteries, and made our trailer ready for launch, now what? As we leave the ramps staging area we’re going to look for a ramp that’s free that can accommodate our boat. You might take into account factors like the direction of the wind and current when doing this to choose a ramp and dock, if there is a choice, that is easier. Sometimes launching with the wind or current holding your boat against the pier is easier, especially if launching solo, than having the boat float away from the pier.
Once we’ve chosen which ramp we’re targeting to launch our boat in we’ll begin backing the boat down to the water slowly. I said earlier that launching a boat isn’t something anyone is born knowing how to do, and I was mainly referencing driving a trailer in reverse. Trailering in reverse is by definition counter-intuitive, years of driving experience are telling you to do one thing when in fact you need to do the opposite to align your boat with the ramp and pier. Trying to explain it to someone, especially in text is almost impossible so my suggestion is practice. Take your boat and trailer to the ramp on an off day like a weekday or during the slow season and practice lining up with the ramp properly a couple dozen times. With a little practice when the pressure is off and the ramp is empty you’ll quickly become a master. Your first time launching shouldn’t be on a busy weekend when everyone else at the ramp is waiting for you, take some time when no one is watching to build your confidence maneuvering your trailer and you’ll get it.
Once you’ve lined up your boat with the ramp slowly back down until the boat is in the water. Every boat and trailer is a little different but there tends to be a sweet spot where the boat is floating but still on the trailer. If you didn’t unhook your winch strap and/or safety chain earlier, now is the time to do it. If you’re getting out of your vehicle to unhook your boat’s straps or to use the dock lines to walk it off, please make sure to set your parking brake. Putting your vehicle in park isn’t enough, especially with the weight of the boat and trailer behind it pulling it down the ramp. Make absolutely certain to engage your vehicle’s parking brake before getting out of the vehicle. Some boaters even carry wooden chalks to put behind the vehicle’s wheels when launching their boat that prevent the vehicle from slipping.
Power Launch or Walk it Off?
Everyone has their own preference when it comes to launching their boat. How you decide to launch is up to you and your preference may change as you become more familiar launching, mine certainly did. In general there are two schools of thought. One involves simply walking the boat off the trailer by having someone on the pier next to the boat ramp hold the dock lines and slowly pull it off the trailer and secure it to the dock. The advantage of this is you can do it yourself pretty easily if you’re launching solo or someone who isn’t an experienced boater is still able to hold on to the dock lines and walk the boat down the pier.
The other option involves using the boat’s engine(s) to power it off the trailer. This is a pretty straightforward launch method but does require having someone in the boat when it’s launched so that it can be driven off when it hits the water. From there they’ll simply hold the boat in the basin or bring it in to the dock to take on the other passengers and the vehicle driver. If the ramp is busy this can be a good strategy to use since you can launch and pick up your passengers somewhere else if the docks along the ramp itself are all full of boats.
How to launch a boat by yourself is a bit more advanced but it’s worth going into since all boaters should be familiar with it. For many boaters taking guests unfamiliar with boats out, it often becomes easier and safer to launch solo once they get the hang of it. Much like launching your boat in general, when launching solo you’re going to develop a routine that works every time which you can repeat for a successful launch each time.
When launching solo I like to loop a dock line from the cleat on my boat’s bow around the trailer and then back to the cleat. This holds the boat on the trailer once it starts to float and importantly is easy to release from inside the boat. If you launch the boat so that it’s close to the dock you can quickly hop in from the dock and power the boat off the trailer once you’ve released your looped dock line. If your ramp doesn’t have a pier or dock running alongside it, things get a bit more complicated. You will have to exit your vehicle and climb up on the bow of your boat to get in. Some boaters who launch solo frequently will have a marine metal fabricator build a ladder for their trailer to make boarding at the bow easier.
Whichever route aboard you choose, launching solo can be tricky, especially if there is a strong wind or current where you launch. You will have to exit the vehicle, contend with a potentially slippery boat ramp, and board your boat. If you’re launching solo I think using the boat’s engines to power off the trailer is your best bet since it allows you to keep the boat on the trailer and use the boat’s engines to get it floating. If you do decide to launch your boat so that it is completely floating it can angle itself toward the dock potentially causing it to scrape the dock or pilings so make sure you have your fenders out to prevent this. A quality pair of trailer guides can also help keep your boat in position and are a good asset on any boat trailer.
Now that we’ve covered most of the aspects of how to launch a boat, let’s look at some of the potential hazards or problems boaters face when launching. I think the biggest one isn’t so much a hazard as it is a condition and that’s other boaters using the same ramp. When the weather is nice we all want to spend time out on the boat so boat ramps on a nice weekend during prime boating season get busy. For an experienced boater who is comfortable trailering their boat this is par for the course. However, if you aren’t comfortable trailering your boat it can be intimidating to do so at a busy ramp. Everyone is watching, and waiting, for you to put your boat in the water and sometimes even a few horns will be used if you’re holding up the line. Like I mentioned earlier, take some time on an off day to master launching your boat, it will make you a lot more comfortable on days when the ramp is crowded.
You should also pay attention to the condition of the ramp. Some ramps accumulate a lot of seaweed, a problem made worse for boaters on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts in recent years by massive Sargassum Seaweed blossoms. Seaweed or other debris on the ramp can cause your vehicle to lose traction and cause you to lose control. While launching this can mean your boat slides into the water faster than expected and can make retrieving your boat and trailer when the day is over more difficult.
Seaweed isn’t the only problem found at the boat ramp though. Ramps in poor condition can be slippery or have broken pieces of concrete. Be especially cautious of ramps that have an abrupt drop off at the end since your trailer can become stuck on it. If the ramp hasn’t been cleaned recently it will be very slippery so you should exercise caution when getting out of your tow vehicle to release any winch straps or board the boat from the bow. Because my own local ramps in South Florida are extremely slippery with algae I use a launching routine that lets me stay in the boat while someone else drives it off the trailer without either of us ever having to walk on the ramp itself.
Something else to think about is where you’re parking your tow vehicle while you’re out on the boat for the day. Some boat ramps may be subject to flooding at extremely high tides, something you probably want to avoid subjecting your vehicle to. You also want to make sure you’re parking it in a secure area where it won’t be broken in to. Make sure to lock the vehicle as well as use a trailer lock to prevent the trailer from being stolen.
A Successful Launch
Launching a boat isn’t hard, it just takes some planning and practice. A well maintained boat should be ready to use when it hits the water and a well maintained trailer should have no problem getting you and your boat safely to the boat ramp. When you’re planning your day on the water take the time to check your boat and trailer before you leave the house. When you’re at the ramp load your boat and conduct your final prep in the staging area. A successful boat launch should become routine with practice, once you develop your routine and checklist, the aspects of launching that may seem stressful today will become second nature. Have a question about launching your boat or want to suggest a tip to include in this article? Feel free to leave a comment below or contact us at BoatEasy. If you’re looking for someone who can give you lessons on how to launch your boat, check out BoatEasy’s boat captains, many of which offer training to new boat owners.