You don’t have to leave the dock to get in over your head
SAFETY EXPERTS WORK HARD TO educate people on the hazards of boating. Rather than talk about wave-tossed drama, they’d do well to emphasize what some consider the most dangerous place on any waterway–the boat landing or ramp.
Horror stories about the hazards of getting boats in and out of the water abound. And with boats getting larger and more expensive, the yarns have become more painful.
Sure, landing the boat seems routine for most veteran boaters, but neophytes often find themselves groping through a series of unforeseen disasters until they master the art. The U.S. Coast Guard is little help, because the landing, as a spokesperson pointed out to me, is not under its jurisdiction. So most people buying a shiny new boat settle for some quick schooling from a distracted dealer and rely on a lot of luck.
Luck isn’t always enough, however. Backing too far into the water, leaving the drain plug out or forgetting to unstrap the boat are all problems seen almost every weekend at any landing, whether on a remote forest lake or on the Great Lakes.
The sight of a 17-foot fishing boat with its floorboards bubbling under water and the hull slowly riding lower and lower–it’s happened to this writer–is sufficient to gall anyone’s memory. But it can get a lot worse. One Wisconsin marina owner recalls a fisherman who drove his boat onto the trailer in fine fettle and then, in an amazing mix-up between hand and throttle, accelerated unexpectedly and roared onto–and over–the trailer to park the boat (well, almost) on the flatbed of his pickup truck.
What makes the boat landing such an interesting place is that Murphy’s Law works here about as well as anywhere. Cautionary tales tend to focus on boaters who forget to put the transmission of their tow vehicle in park and launch their expensive sport-utility vehicle along with their boat. Other common laugh-getters are those who watch their untethered boat drifting away, or those who dump the boat onto the concrete when a frayed winch rope snaps as they’re hauling the boat from the water. Ha … ha.
You can almost smell the bile pouring into the bloodstreams of muttering boaters lined up behind drivers straining repeatedly to back their boat down a tight ramp. Then there’s the privileged clown who figures the leather upholstery in his SUV entitles him to barge into line without waiting. (One reason why the Golden Rule from one marina owner is “Wait your turn.”) Fuming boaters, feuding couples and frustrated neophytes hoping they won’t make fools of themselves are all part of a volatile rampside brew. Mix this crowd with oil, gas and combustion engines, and you’ve got some memorable mornings at the landing.
For this reason the first recommendation for new boaters from John Plenke, a Wisconsin state law enforcement safety specialist, is to become familiar with your boat, its rigging and its manual before heading to the landing and tying up traffic while you learn.
“You get a lot of people out there who are not patient with congestion,” says Plenke, in what may be boating’s biggest understatement.
Plenke has some simple, if obvious, suggestions for new or uncertain boat owners. He suggests they find an open area–such as a school parking lot on the weekend–and practice backing up their trailer until they’re proficient. Secondly, he urges boating-safety classes. Finally, a lot of problem holdups would be averted, Plenke says, if boaters simply stowed their gear in the boat and had everything at the ready when it was their turn to roll down the landing. “They can cut their launch time in half,” he says.
Plenke’s main concern? The slippery covering of algae that is present on many landings–even those in salt water–and causes painful or disabling spills. The stuff can be like walking on STP.
Particularly in rural areas where there are many small lakes and days can pass between launchings, boating experts advise fishermen and recreational boaters to check out landings before using them. Changing water levels can betray unwary boaters, causing them to back off the end of a low ramp and into the muck … and trouble.
Some landings simply aren’t suitable for larger boats and others are just plain misguided hardpan gravel sheets on remote waterways. Cul-de-sacs that fade quickly into sand that sucks at trailer tires, miring boats and vehicles in shallow water. It happens.
For tyro boaters the landing can be a rite of passage akin to running the Iroquois Gauntlet, but with some planning you can survive without serious damage to your pride or boat. Happy launching.
Marina owner Bob Heckel has seen it all at the launch. Here’s his simple checklist for avoiding a dockside scene.
* Pack wheel bearings and check tire pressure on all trailer tires.
* Keep two sets of trailer locking pins, keys and drain plugs.
* Check for old or frayed winch ropes or straps and never trailer without crossed safety chains.
* When launching, unplug lights at the car to avoid blowing fuses or trailer lights, even if they are supposed to be “sealed.”
* Keep the bilge pump running until you’re certain you’ve successfully launched.