Off the Porch: Load and launch like a pro or possibly pay the price
This week, I did a shakedown cruise on a new Sea Hunt 24 foot center console with my son-in-law, Jeff Jordan and my grandson, Charlie. Jeff ordered the boat a couple of months ago, and we wanted to take it out and go through everything to make sure it would be ready for its first real fishing trip. Boats rarely come truly water ready and even if they are, it takes a little experimentation to get the launch and load process down. Jeff wisely decided it would make sense to have a little learning experience at Belews Lake instead of doing the learning process on the fly.
I’ve often said that preparation is a good part of success whether in outdoor endeavors or anything else. We hooked up the trailer and made sure the boat was riding at the correct angle, towed it to the ramp and began the first launch process. Jeff had done his homework and talked to a friend who owned a similar boat. From his friend’s experience, he knew getting the boat off the trailer without damaging the trolling motor mount might be an issue. Sure enough, we found the boat wouldn’t slide off the bunks until the stern began to float, a situation that would have dropped the trolling motor on the bow roller when the bow came off the roller, this would have surely broken the trolling motor bracket, or worse.
We solved this by loosening the bow strap and me hitting the brakes on the truck just before the stern began to float, sliding the boat back far enough to miss the bow roller when the boat was backed far enough off the bunks to back off under motor power in reverse.
Such are the intricacies of launching a boat. Once you learn just what your boat requires for a smooth launch and load, you can look like a pro at the ramp instead of some of the Chinese fire drills you’ll see if you hang around a busy boat ramp. I’ve seen boats dropped off on the concrete ramp, boats swamped because the plug wasn’t installed, boats launched with no one aboard, and trailers still attached to the stern of the boat floated until the owner had to get into the water and push it over until someone else drove the whole mess out far enough to get the wheels back on the ramp. On loading the boat back on the trailer, I’ve seen motors dragged across the concrete, boats dropped off the trailer as the vehicle and trailer drive off, and axles torn out from under trailers backed off the underwater edge of the ramp. I once watched a new GMC Tahoe and trailer towed out of 20 feet of water to the ramp after a diver hooked on a tow line.
Such shenanigans are interesting to watch, but embarrassing, expensive, and potentially dangerous. A month or so ago, I did a TV show with a well-known guide. I asked if I could help prep the boat for launch and his response was classic and one I’ve used myself. “I have a ritual I go through and if someone helps, I’m much more likely to make a mistake.”
Launching a boat isn’t rocket science. It is something that requires some attention and practice. Here are a few tips that will make your boat launches and loads less entertaining and more efficient.
Pre-launch prep should be a ritual. Stern straps, transom supports, and plugs should be taken care of before the boat begins down the ramp. All gear should be loaded then as well. It’s easier to get rods, coolers, and bait tanks in the boat in the parking lot than at the edge of the ramp. You may be tying up the ramp for other boaters.
Know how far the trailer should be in the water. I know where the water should be on the fenders of my trailer, and by experience, I’ve learned how to compensate for steep or shallow boat ramps. If the boat is too far into the water, the bow cleat or trolling motor might snag on the bow support and you’ll have to pull the trailer forward to get it off. If current drifts the stern off the bunks as this happens, you may have a real snafu on your hands. Some boats require a little bump of the brakes to get them moving, learn what your boat needs and be consistent.
The engine should be running when the strap is unclipped. With most boats, it’s a good idea to crank the engine before the strap is released. Back the boat down far enough to get the lower unit in the water and crank up. Having the engine running might allow you to rectify a mistake quickly and before it becomes a big mistake.
Learn to manage your boat in tight quarters. With a little practice, you can spin your boat around in its length. Learn to do this in an uncrowded area and do it until it comes naturally. You never know when you may need this skill to avoid tangling with another craft.
Avoid any distractions during launch or load. This is no time to multitask. Don’t answer your phone or arrange stuff in the boat. There will be time for other things once launched or loaded.
When launching or loading, keep the boat under control all the time. Keep your boat speed low and you won’t have to make panic moves with the throttle. All maneuvering when the boat is off the bunks should be done at idle. If you need to use throttle to slow or change directions, you’re going too fast.
Keep your eye on the target. The point where your boat will first contact the bunks is the only target you have. It’s obviously under water so learn just where the boat is when this happens. Guides help to give you a reference point, but you need to know when the bottom will contact the bunks.
Know when the boat is fully loaded. Have a reference point on the boat that lines up with a reference point on the trailer. With side guides, remember how close the gunnel cleat comes to the guide on the trailer and even make a mark on the gunnel if you need to. This will prevent having to adjust the boat constantly.
Have a ritual for shutdown before pulling out of the water. A shutdown ritual prevents problems and will make the process flawlessly consistent. Engine shut down, tilt up, steering straight, bow strap attached, winch locked, and safety chain attached, do these in order and then drive out or instruct your driver to do so. If someone else hooks up the bow, do a visual inspection yourself.
With summer here, boats are busy. A precision job of launching and loading not only makes you look good, it’s cheaper and safer, of course, but it’s also considerate of other boaters who are behind you in line.