How To Launch A Boat At The Ramp

Launching a boat at the ramp will be a piece of cake, if you follow these simple steps.

You have a new trailer boat, you’ve created your pre-launch checklist, pulled into the parking lot at the boat ramp, and you’re chomping at the bit to enjoy a sunny day out on the water. At this point there’s just one thing between you and your waterborne fun: actually launching the boat. This can be a stressful moment, especially for those who are new to boating and don’t have a ton of experience at backing down the ramp and shoving off the dock.

How To Launch A Boat At Ramp

Above: A man detaches the winch strap from the bow of a cabin cruiser and pushes it off the trailer into the water at a boat ramp. Photo: Pond5

Prepping a Boat for Launching at the Ramp

When you first arrive at the launch facility, you’ll need to transition from trailering mode to launching mode. Everyone’s launch prep will be a bit different but the basic steps include:

  1. Walk around the boat and touch the hubs on the trailer to make sure your bearings are cool to moderately warm. If they’re burning hot to the touch, they need to be serviced and you’ll want to have a professional check them out before your next trip. In any case, give them time to cool off before launching because hot bearings hitting cool water can result in damage.
  2. Remove the safety strap or straps securing the back of the boat to the trailer and stow them. At this point, you’ll want to leave the bow strap and safety chain attached to prevent the boat from sliding off the trailer prematurely.
  3. Install the drain plug or plugs.
  4. Load any gear you may have inside the tow vehicle into the boat. With larger boats, this will be easiest of someone climbs inside and you hand everything up to them.
  5. Prep your dock lines by affixing them to the boat’s cleats and leaving them neatly coiled where you can easily reach them.
  6. If your trailer has incandescent bulbs, remove the light plug from the tow vehicle so the bulbs don’t heat up when you put your foot on the brake, then get dunked in cool water. This can cause incandescent bulbs to break (but isn’t an issue with LED trailer lights).
  7. Double-check the drain plug. It sounds cliché, but people do forget this simple yet imperative step and put the boat into the water without the plugs in on a regular basis.

Ryan McVinney Launching Boat At Ramp In Stomping Grounds Episode

Above: Stomping Grounds director and host Ryan McVinney puts a drain plug into the transom of a Tracker aluminum fishing boat at the ramp before launching it, during filming of the Tin Boat Mafia Episode of Boat Trader’s video series, produced in Cape Cod, MA.

How To Back Down a Boat Ramp In Reverse

This task is one that causes a lot of angst, particularly for new trailer boaters who are just getting used to hauling a boat. Don’t worry, though. If you relax, take your time, and remind yourself that no one’s perfect when the boat does go out of alignment — it happens to the best of us every now and again — you’ll soon become accustomed to the task.

The most important part of backing down the ramp actually comes before you ever shift into reverse: Pull forward far enough that the tow vehicle and boat are aligned. Many people stop when the boat is still at an angle to the tow vehicle, and this means you’re trying to correct the trailer’s direction before you even get started. It’ll be much easier to get the boat going in the proper direction if you start out with the tow vehicle, trailer, and the boat’s stern all in line with the launch ramp.

Once you’re properly aligned, shift into reverse and use the smallest course-corrections possible to keep the boat rolling in the right direction. It’s easy to over-steer, especially if you try to back down quickly, so take your time and move the steering wheel in small increments. If you get out of alignment, stop, pull up until you’ve re-aligned the rig, and start over.

As you back up, glance between your side-view mirrors, rear-view mirrors, and backup camera. The multiple views will help you quickly spot it when the trailer starts going askew.

The entire time, of course, you need to remember that the trailer will react to input at the wheel in an opposite direction — when you steer right, the trailer swings left. Some people find it helpful to grab the bottom of the wheel and tell themselves that the direction they push their hand in will be the direction the boat goes.

Back down the ramp until the back of the boat is floating. Note that depending on the incline of the ramp you’re using and how long your rig is, it may be impossible to get the boat floating before your tow vehicle’s wheels reach the water. In this scenario you’ll probably need to use the boat’s engine or some muscle-power to help the boat off the trailer. Either way, once the boat and trailer are in position put your tow vehicle into park and be sure to apply the parking brake.

Launching the Boat

Now, you’re ready for the final step of pulling the boat off the trailer. Remove the bow strap and safety chain, and at this point, with a small boat or a steep ramp you may be able to simply give the bow a shove and send the boat floating. If you do so, of course, you’d better first make sure that someone’s holding those docklines. When launching single-handed you can attach a single longer line to the bow and hold it yourself to keep control of the boat.

With larger boats or shallow boat ramps, there’s a good possibility you’ll need to power off of the trailer. In this case climb into the boat, lower the drive unit(s) until the water intakes are submerged, and start the engine. Then shift into reverse while applying minimal power. If the boat doesn’t move, apply power gently in small increments until it starts backing off the trailer. Then pull up to the dock, secure the boat with the docklines, and park your tow vehicle.

Ryan McVinney launching a boat during Stomping Grounds Episode One.

Above: Ryan McVinney launching a Tracker Super Guide V-16 SC aluminum boat at a ramp for Stomping Grounds Episode One.

Boat Ramp Etiquette

Boat ramps can get very busy, especially on sunny weekends, and the launching process goes smoother when everyone involved adheres to a few basic courtesies.

These include:

  1. Don’t pull up to the ramp until you’re completely ready to launch. The pre-launch prep procedure should take place in a staging area away from the ramp, where it’s not being blocked. That way other trailer boaters who are ready to roll can start launching without delay. Also be careful not to park so you’ve blocked other boaters from being able to pull forward and align their rigs.
  2. If there’s room on the pier, move your boat away from the ramp immediately after launching and tie it up as far away as possible or on the opposite side of the pier. Then others can use the ramp while you park your tow vehicle.
  3. If there’s not room at the pier to move your boat away from the ramp and you have a helper who’s experienced, ask them to pull the boat away from the pier while you park your rig and then pick you up on the dock when you return (or pull the boat away yourself, and ask them to park your tow vehicle for you).
  4. Similarly, when you return to a crowded ramp, rather than tie up your boat simply drop someone off on the pier to retrieve the tow vehicle. Then back off, until they can back the trailer down the ramp. After the boat is on the trailer, pull away from the ramp before unloading gear and prepping for the ride home.
  5. All of these items relate to one thing: minimizing crowding at the ramp itself, and trying not to hold everyone else up.

If you follow all these steps and procedures, will you look like a pro when you launch a boat at the ramp? Maybe, but probably not at first. Like anything in life, launching a boat smoothly and efficiently takes practice. The more you do it the better you’ll become at the task. But you can speed up the learning curve quite a bit by hauling your boat to an empty parking lot, setting up some cones (or place life jackets on the ground), and practice backing for an hour or two. Before you know it, you will in fact look like a pro — and all that waterborne fun will be mere moments away the next time you pull in at the boat ramp.

Written by: Lenny Rudow

With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, Lenny Rudow has contributed to publications including YachtWorld, boats.com, Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, and he has won numerous BWI and OWAA writing awards.

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