How to Launch a Boat from a Trailer and Load It Again


Mirrors, mirrors, mirrors and practice, practice, practice. These are the two keys to successfully launching a boat from a trailer, or for backing anything from a camping trailer to a boat trailer. If you’re looking for some great entertainment, go to a public boat ramp on a holiday weekend, grab a picnic lunch and a few beers and watch the show. It is often a spectacular comedy of errors simply because people don’t take the time to learn how to do it. They go to the ramp with their shiny new boat, figuring how hard can it be, and 20 minutes later they’re still backing and pulling forward trying to back the trailer in a straight, line no nearer the water than they were at the beginning. Meanwhile the trucks and trailers are stacking up like air traffic at O’Hare in a snowstorm.

You don’t want to be that guy. Nor do you want to be the guy that forgets to put the plug in the boat, or forgets to have a line attached to the boat when he drops it in the water. Boats rapidly filling with water or drifting out to the middle of the lake are just a few of the Keystone Cop antics you will witness. Great way to gain instant fame as the subject of a YouTube video. So let’s take this one step at a time.

How to Back Up a Trailer

When you back a car, you turn the wheel a certain way and the back end of the car goes that way. If there’s a trailer attached it pushes the hitch with it and the rear end of the trailer goes the other way. Turn your steering wheel to the left and the back end of the trailer is going right. Very non-intuitive which is why it takes some practice.

Never turn around and try to back a trailer by looking directly at it. When you see someone at the boat ramp doing that, get your children and loved ones out of the way. Not only is it terribly uncomfortable, but you’re facing away from the wheel, which in turn makes you have to think which way you’re turning it, meanwhile looking at the trailer going the other way. It’s like playing Twister and doing Lumosity brain exercises at the same time.

Using your rearview and side mirrors allows you to sit comfortably, scanning the mirrors and watching the boat’s relationship to the car as it goes backward. If you start to see the back end of the trailer moving to the right you can make a slight adjustment and bring it back in line. Notice I said slight. A slight adjustment of the wheel in either direction magnifies to a big adjustment at the back end of the trailer. It’s always interesting to watch someone frantically turning the wheel all the way to the right and then all the way to the left, meanwhile the trailer is headed in every direction but down the ramp.

If you can, pull forward so that the truck/car and trailer are in a straight line with the back of the boat facing the boat ramp. This avoids having to make turns as you’re backing up. Once lined up to the ramp, simply back slowly, keeping the trailer behind the car by making slight adjustments both right and left. Trailers want to wander and once they wander too far, there is no alternative but to pull forward and start again which brings us to the next part.

Practice Backing Up your Trailer

Take your new boat and trailer to a big, empty parking lot on Sunday morning when there’s no one around and practice backing. Pick a target and work on backing it straight toward that target. Practice backing it into a parking space. Learn to change directions smoothly without jackknifing the trailer, which is easy to do. If you look out your side window and see the back of your boat, that’s not good. See if you can back it in a big, even circle. Learn to make a tight turn going backwards and then straighten out and go straight back. All these maneuvers will be needed at the ramp. You may have to back around other boats or between other trucks and trailers. Before you know it, it will become second nature and you’ll be backing your trailer down the ramp like a pro.

Boat Launching Checklist

  1. Every trailer and boat combination is different. Some have bunks that the boat sits on and some have rollers. Generally you have to push or float a boat off bunks, whereas boats on rollers will slide off on their own. This is important to remember. Many a boater with a roller trailer has backed the trailer into the water, unhooked the boat before securing the rope, and had the boat slide out into the water with no one in it. Before backing down the ramp, make sure all the transport straps are removed, but the boat is still attached by the safety chain and the winch.
  2. Make sure the engine (if there is one) is ready to tilt down into the water.
  3. Make sure the plug is in. More than a few have found themselves scrambling madly to get their boat back on the trailer before it fills with water. Often you won’t notice it until you park the trailer and go back only to find your boat settling in the water. Big mistake. By that time someone else is on the ramp and your boat is sinking.
  4. Make sure you have a secure line held by either you or a friend before you release the boat, otherwise you’ll get to go for an embarrassing swim.
  5. Back down until about a third of the boat is in the water. For bunks you may want to go a bit deeper to get the boat’s buoyancy to help you push it off. A boat on a roller trailer will slide off as soon as it’s released. Just be sure you’re in the water. Generally, if the tires are three quarters submerged you’re fine.

How to Load your Boat on the Trailer

Loading is the process in reverse. Secure the boat to the dock or pull it up on shore to ensure it’s not drifting away while you get the trailer. Wind and current can take a boat in a heartbeat if you’re careless. Line up the trailer with the ramp and back it down into the water. On most trailers back it to the point where the top of the wheels are just above the surface. Too far and the boat will float around above the bunks or rollers. Not far enough and there’s going to be a lot of cranking on the winch. For lighter boats just grab the front rope and pull it as far as you can onto the trailer, hook up the strap and winch it up. Attach the safety chain. When you start pulling up the ramp, the winch could easily let go and you’ll find your boat sitting on the ramp behind your trailer. Never trust the winch to hold the boat.

For larger boats, it’s easier to drive the boat up onto the trailer. Drive it up at low idle until it stops and then winch it the rest of the way up. Don’t be one of those guys that tries to drive the boat all the way up at full throttle. It’s obnoxious, damages the boat ramp structure, and if you make a mistake you may find your boat in the back of the truck. It happens.

Final Boat Launching Tips

The more you do this the better you’ll be, and you’ll develop a nice routine. Work smoothly, efficiently, and always think through your checklist. Even the most seasoned boaters get in a hurry and forget something important. Quick, efficient, thoughtful, and most importantly practice good boat ramp etiquette. Wait your turn. Be ready when it’s your turn. Prepare your boat to launch before and prepare it to drive home after in a place that’s not blocking the ramp. If some poor guy is having trouble, offer to help, but don’t push it. Practice, confidence, and common sense are the key. It’s fun to watch the show, you just don’t want to be the show.

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