Tame those boat ramp terrors
  |  First Published: December 2016

In contrast to purchasing a first motorcar, boat ownership seems to involve a bit of stress. First there are new rules to consider. There’s the boat ramp – the place where the boat will enter or leave the water. Who would believe that boats pass each other on opposite sides to cars? Or that a beacon’s shape and colour dictates on which side the boat should pass, when moving towards or away from a major port. These scenarios both seem to cause worry, especially for the new boat owners in our ranks, so we’ll look at ways to overcome those concerns.

Leaving the trailer

Launching a boat sounds so simple – the boat is backed down the ramp and off she goes. That certainly happens for old hands at the game, but for many of us, there are some minefields to negotiate en route. It’s all a bit daunting, but practice makes perfect that’s for sure. Remember, if a new crewmember is along on the trip, explain what needs to be done as easily as possible so there are no glitches.

A study of boat ramps reveals that they are as widely dissimilar as the boats using them. Width and slope varies, which means that some ramps are always easy to use and others are only easy when things are just right. Some are just plain bad, with rock or mud either side, or a thick covering of slick slime to upset the unwary. A well-constructed ramp will allow the boat owner to easily turn around above it to reverse down and will have a gradient, plus sufficient width, that allows the boater to keep an eye on things as the boat is reversed towards the water.

Features that make a ramp great can be as simple as neat bits of beach adjoining it and a pontoon where the boat can be held for a spell after launch, or while waiting for the car to back down for retrieval. Varying degrees of user friendliness come from such things as a ramp’s exposure to wind and tide, the degree of slope or if there is a sudden drop off at the end, if the ramp is dangerously slippery or easy going underfoot, and of course, how busy it is at the time. All these variables are common, so the trick is to be forewarned and forearmed.

Look before
you launch

A look at the ramp before first launch is a very easy way of assessing the lay of the land. It takes so little to do it. This is easy enough when the ramp is local! Keen anglers love to travel to new places to fish. This brings to mind some trips to Lake Awoonga, back in the days when our expectations to catch a barra on fly were so high, that if we didn’t catch a big barra, we’d be very disappointed indeed.

The lake was down in water level to the extent that a 50m skinny concrete strip had to be negotiated prior to the tinny coming off the trailer. At times like that it sure pays to be able to reverse. More on this tender topic later! Checking out the ramp prior to launch is a brilliant plan.

A glance at the rigging area where the boat is made ready out of other people’s way, is wise, as is taking time to see what other people do if the ramp is a tricky devil. Note how wind and tide affect a boat as it comes off the trailer, how deep the area close to the ramp appears to be when someone is walking the boat away to the side just as you or one of your team might do.

Things to think about

Let’s face it – tin boats are more friendly around a ramp than a glass boat. I use either style of boats at times and I know which is the carefree option to handle on a ramp. It’s just not smart to grind fibreglass into concrete. And on the topic of grinding things into concrete, never let a larger boat whizz back off the trailer on the end of a rope, which it will do if the trailer is a multi roller job. Once the winch strap hook and shackle are released from the boat’s tow hook, it will really gallop back and there are two likely bad outcomes here.

The first will see the expensive transducer destroyed by hard contact with the ramp as the craft takes off backwards and the stern dips momentarily under. The second scenario involves the person hanging onto the rope being pulled almost into the water or at least having an arm stretched painfully as the strain comes on hard. Beware, if the boat is a large one, takes things gently. It may be better to lower it with the winch, unhook it when it’s just leaving the trailer and if it means the feet get wet, so be it.

In fact, the size of the craft comes right into the picture. Once a boat is over 5m in length you need a game plan before you launch, and another for when it comes time to retrieve it. A launch in dead calm full tide conditions can be a far cry from a retrieval with wind and a strong tidal flow, which combine to make things far from easy.

Confident reversing requires practice

With tie down straps removed, the engine freed from it’s locked up transportation position and all bungs in place, and with the boat lined up straight at the top of the ramp, it’s time to reverse.

Reversing boat trailers is not, as far as I can ascertain, an instinctive human skill. Practice is the trick – there’s nothing at all wrong with taking the boat to an appropriate place with plenty of room, setting up a few old aluminium cans as markers and practice reversing by watching the mirrors.

Start with the boat as straight as possible – that’s the clue for beginners – and as soon as the car starts to move back, the idea is to watch the boat intently. When it starts to move to one side, gently turn the steering wheel to correct it. This is surprisingly easy to master, so long as you take it slowly in the beginning. And remember, for the beginner the straighter things are to start with, the better the backing.

Tips for the retrieval

Fishing’s over and it’s time to go back to the ramp, so now we assess exactly what’s happening. A boat right beside the ramp could also be returning, or the chap could be waiting for the car crew to come down and board before heading off. A short time of assessment will reveal the true situation. Don’t push ahead of any other team, or you’ll cop some very hostile glances, and perhaps some words you’d rather the kids didn’t hear.

If there’s a pontoon available, things are very easy. When a pontoon is absent, it can be interesting. The idea is to get the trailer down into place, once it’s your driver’s turn to do so, and then pull the boat around and line it up on the trailer’s centre for the winching up. On some ramps, this is dead easy, but not all.

You’ll see the accompanying photo of our Galey being retrieved at the Cabbage Tree Point ramp. For the record, I don’t mind this ramp. It’s the ‘local’ and I’ve used it for 40 years of boating life. However, it’s easily influenced by tide and wind. On the day of the photo, the tide was going south with a northerly breeze, which meant that short of me walking a fair way into the water to line the boat up, there was no way that big 5.5m craft would be centred so Denise could do the winch bit. And that ramp has a deep drop off it’s extremity.

Previously in this situation, we’d hooked the Galey up to the winch cord and I simply tied a rope to the starboard aft cleat and used the rope, from the side, to pull the boat against the current and wind influence so it could be lined up and retrieved. This works every time – it’s handy for a larger craft in unfriendly conditions.

Last thoughts

For the absolute beginner, what’s wrong with making a small checklist of items to tick off before the launch or retrieve? Don’t get flustered if things go wrong, just assess and correct as required. As I mentioned, not all ramps are user-friendly. Some have rocks on the side or deep water around the ramp’s edge. In that situation, it’s vital to have a team member ready to grab the boat and take control. A look before launch sure makes sense in this situation.

Above all, if someone needs assistance at a ramp, freely give them a hand. What goes around comes around – it might be you next time.


A pontoon beside a boat ramp adds a very high degree of user-friendliness and also makes it easy to comfortably wait in turn.


It’s not hard to assess that launching at the end of this ramp will involve some teamwork to keep the craft under control when it leaves the trailer.


When the Kapten Waverider left the ramp at Mooloolaba, it was moved straight onto the adjacent beach. What could be easier?


This ramp is sheltered by break walls all around, so there should be no issues with launch or retrieve other than keeping the glass off the concrete.


The ramp at Cabbage Tree Point on a very calm day – unfortunately, there’s no guarantee things will be this calm when it’s time to leave the water.


A tactical retrieve under way –the author has a stern rope on the boat to align it with the trailer, as wind and tide are pushing it away, and his wife is ready with the winch.


Difficult times are ahead! The Borumba Dam Ramp has large slimy rocks on the edge, so once the boat leaves the trailer, it must be kept under rapid control to avoid damage.


A more detailed look at the new Borumba Dam Ramp reveals rocks on the right and a large sign that restricts end-of-ramp movement to the left. While the ramp is very good, have someone hop aboard and drive the boat around to the shingle beach area for all the team to board.

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