How to Launch a Boat – a Guide to Getting your Boat On and Off the Trailer

How to Guides

A small fishing boat being launched off a trailer

Launching a boat is not the most enjoyable task. But mastering the art of launching your boat properly is a necessity if you want to get on with fishing and having fun on the water.

If this is your first time launching a boat, don’t add to the pressure of the day by not being familiar with driving and reversing your boat trailer. Go to a large empty car park and practice reversing. Don’t expect to be a pro at backing a boat trailer when you haven’t done it before. Your preparation and experience will pay off with time.

The night before you are going to launch your boat, get all of your gear ready. You don’t want to be looking for something in a dimly lit morning or running the risk of not having all the required safety equipment on board. Next, do a dry run of the steps you will take in launching your boat. It even helps to write yourself a checklist. When it comes to boats, one small slip can end in disaster. While it might be easy to remember the steps during your dry run, it probably won’t be so easy when you have to contend with a slippery ramp and an audience.

If you can, familiarise yourself with the ramp you will be using the day before you launch. Read the signs and know which lanes are for launching and retrieval if it’s a large ramp. Decide where you will park before entering the ramp area to get your gear organised.

Lastly, ask an experienced friend or family member boatie to help you launch and retrieve your boat the first couple of times. Having someone with you who has done it all before will be the backup you might need. You won’t know the conditions or how you will function under pressure so err on the side of caution. Remember they probably made plenty of mistakes starting out too, so use their wisdom to ensure you don’t make the same ones. If something goes wrong, you may need them to take over to avoid a problem.     

How to Launch a Boat

Follow our guide, and you will have your boat on and off the trailer with a minimum of stress.

1.    Organise your Gear

Don’t be the inconsiderate boatie that is sorting out the fishing gear and fuel when you are on the boat ramp holding up other boat users. Before you get near the boat ramp, make sure you have everything in order. In the carpark, transfer items from the car to your boat and vice versa. Check the fuel, safety equipment, and mooring lines. Switch on the battery and pump the fuel bulb. Make sure there is room to get into the boat safely.

It’s the ‘unspoken rule’ around the world that you don’t hold up the boat ramp doing tasks that can be done away from the ramp. If you break the rule, it won’t be long before another skipper reads you the riot act. Everyone wants to get out on the water as quickly as possible.   

2.    Cabling

Ensure the trailer is still correctly secured to the car. Unplug the tail-lights otherwise they could short-circuit when they hit the water. When you have everything in order, move towards the boat ramp or queue. Make sure the trailer winch hook is attached to the bow eye. Undo the tie-down straps. Check the bungs are in and secure. Get the dock lines ready, and if you have fenders put them in place too. If your boat has an outboard motor, trim it up to avoid it dragging.  

3.    Check the Boat Ramp

If you are using your local boat ramp and the carpark is full of empty trailers, you can safely assume that there are no problems with the ramp. But if you are on holiday at an unfamiliar ramp that doesn’t look like anyone has used it today, it’s best to check it out before you back the trailer down. If you are a novice, it can be helpful to watch other boats being launched to get an idea of the depth and water flow on the ramp.  

4.    Safety

Make sure your deckhand or passenger is standing in a position where you can both see each other. They need to be able to see the back of the boat to warn you if you are going to collide with another boat, car or the dock.

If there are more than two of you, make sure your passengers know where you want them to sit or stand while you are launching the boat. This is particularly important if you have children in your group. Make another adult responsible for looking after them well away from the boat ramp. Kids are hard to see and unpredictable in all the excitement of launching the boat. It’s not just your boat and trailer that presents a risk to them. Other ramp users won’t be looking out for kids or pets.

5.    Reverse the Boat In

Find the right low gear on your car and start reversing down the ramp. Some skippers prefer to use neutral so they can quickly put it in gear and drive forward if something goes wrong while reversing. Use all your car’s mirrors and apply the brakes gently. Use small steering adjustments as you back the trailer down.  

6.    Know when to Stop Reversing

If you reverse too far down the boat ramp, you are at risk of getting bogged or losing your vehicle into the drink. Every vehicle and boat combination is different so how far you back in depends on the type of trailer, your boat and vehicle. Some skippers like to stop when the water is just above the trailer hubs.

You will know when to stop reversing when you feel the boat become slightly buoyant and the stern rises from the trailer. Make sure the winch cable is detached. Your deckhand can get into the boat. You can give your boat a helping hand into the water by applying the brakes with a little pressure. For larger boats, you may need to use the engine and back the boat off the trailer.

7.    Final Launch   

Put on the vehicle’s handbrake and check it’s holding before putting it into park. Walk down to the boat to give it a final push off the trailer. Ask your deckhand to throw you the dock line so you can secure the boat to the jetty. Get back in your vehicle and get ready to drive off the ramp to the carpark. Just because you don’t have the weight of the boat behind you doesn’t mean you won’t have any problems. Boat ramps are slippery with algae, so your wheels may spin. Park your vehicle and trailer in a designated bay then head back to the boat, untie the rope and board.

8.    Motoring Away from the Ramp/Dock   

Lower the engine. If you have a bilge, blow out any fumes. Before reversing the boat, make sure there are no other boats or swimmers behind you. Push your boat a good one metre away from the dock (if there is one) before hitting the throttle. Your stern needs room to turn the boat without scraping the boat on a pier. Move away from the dock and start checking the winds, current and wave conditions.     

9. Retrieving your Boat

Once you have finished your boat trip and come back in to shore, kill the engine and lift the motor. Jump out and reverse your trailer down the ramp. Attach the trailer winch strap and line the boat up with the trailer rollers remembering the boat will swing around in the wind. Once it’s lined up, crank the winch and apply the brake when the boat is completely in. Attach the safety chain. Make sure all the passengers are out of the boat and drive up the ramp. In the carpark attach all the tie-downs and trailer lights. Switch off the battery. Check the trailer lights are working and the boat is secure before driving to the wash-down bay or home.

How to Launch a Boat Solo

With practice launching your boat will get easier and quicker. You learn how your trailer and boat react in different weather conditions and types of ramps. Before long you won’t need a deckhand and you can make a solo trip like this guy on YouTube.

It is easiest to have a dock available to tie your boat to while you park the car. Tie it roughly in the middle of your boat so neither end swings out. Park your car and return to your boat. If you are using a ramp with no dock, you will need to beach or anchor your boat in shallow water so it’s still there when you get back from the car park.

Just like launching for the first time is tricky, so is solo boat launching. If possible, choose a quiet time at the ramp and have your checklist of things to do to ensure you safely launch the boat.

If you have any queries about equipment for your trailer or boat to help with launching and retrieving, ask the experts at Boat Accessories Australia by calling 1300 308 161 or contact us online.
Category: How to Guides

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