Avoiding Boating Mistakes

By Steve Weisman

I’ve been a boat owner for over 40 years and for the most part have enjoyed my boating experiences. At the same time, along the way I have witnessed and been part of mistakes that have certainly affected those experiences. Some have been laughable, some what I would call “stupidity at its height” and some that could have become extremely serious. Let’s take a look at five common mistakes boaters make and how to solve the situations.

#1 Backing the boat trailer
Backing the trailer down the ramp sounds so simple, but I have seen some incredibly crazy situations. This has never been much of a problem for me, I guess, because I grew up on the farm and had the job of backing up 4-wheeled tank wagons. Now, that’s tough. However, I still find myself getting into trouble if I am in a hurry, whip up, put the vehicle in reverse and start backing up. If I stop, survey the situation and visualize the process, I am fine.

My first word of advice if you are uncertain about this process, is to try backing up the vehicle and boat trailer before going to the ramp. Ramps during the summer can be crazy with activity and nothing makes people more frustrated than having someone struggle up and down going off kilter, pulling ahead to start again and again. All this while other boaters are waiting in line causes short tempers!

Sometimes, watching the process makes the actual situation easier. If you want to watch the process, go to a YouTube video of how to back up a boat trailer. Then, it’s…practice, practice, practice. If there is little traffic in your neighborhood, practice there. Otherwise, head to a huge parking lot and practice. Also, know what your boat ramps are going to be like. If they are long and allow you to pull all the way up so that the vehicle and trailer are lined up and straight, this makes the entire process easy. If it is shorter and you can’t get the rig straight, then you have to work with more intense angles.

A simple fact to remember is that the trailer moves the opposite direction of the back of the vehicle. If just learning, a simple aid is putting the driving hand (left or right) on the bottom of the steering wheel (at the 6 o’clock) position. Move the hand to the right, and the trailer goes right. Move the hand to the left, and the trailer goes left. There is always the fear of turning too sharply, so go slowly and use the backup mirrors to help keep the boat going where you want it. I use the driver’s mirror more, because the passenger mirror does not show the true distance. A back up camera can also come in handy, but the trailer and boat will block most of the screen and not give the entire picture. If the trailer starts to go off, don’t do a huge turn of the steering wheel, because over correcting can turn things into “jack knife city!” Instead, if you are going off, just pull ahead a little to get things straightened out again. This is where having a friend there to help guide can really help. However, the friend needs to know the game plan before starting. Otherwise, it might just turn into a shouting experience.

Final thought: stay calm and be patient! The more upset you get, the worse things can get. Stay calm, keep your focus and take it a step at a time. With experience comes confidence!

#2 Unloading boats on a roller trailer
Boats on roller trailers are meant to easily roll back and off into the water! That’s the good news. The bad news? Sometimes the boat ends up on the ramp. If the ramp is flat to the water, then it’s okay to unhook the front of the boat from the trailer. However, if it is a steep ramp, don’t even think about it! I’ve seen the results with a big fishing boat sitting on the ramp a long way from the water. A well fitted, smooth roller trailer, combined with the bouncing of the vehicle and trailer down the ramp and gravity from a steep incline can cause the catastrophe! Wait till you have the tongue of the trailer at the edge of the water before unhooking the trailer. Not fun trying to get that boat back up on the trailer! I’ve seen lifts brought in to get the boat up, and sometimes the damage is quite extensive. Oh, and yes this will definitely tie up a boat ramp for a long time!

#3 Loading a boat back on the trailer
This sounds so easy. Just put it on the trailer the way it came off. With smaller boats, I used to just pull up to the dock and once the trailer was in the water, just push the boat toward the trailer, walk with the rope to the front of the trailer and pull the boat into the cradle. With bigger boats and now my 24’ pontoon, I will drive it on the trailer.

However, first things first, if I can, I will try to launch in a cove or an area where the current and wind cannot be an issue. On many of my area lakes, I have that luxury. Thus, loading the boat is pretty simple. However, that can’t always be the case, and there are variables that can cause real problems. First off, I recommend that having guides on each side of the back of the trailer. In that way, once the hull has hit the trailer, the back guides will help keep he boat centered on the trailer.

The first problem can come if you are on the river and there is a current. If it is a side current, it can be unforgiving, and you must adjust to the current so that you hit the trailer straight on. So, I will first back the trailer down just far enough that the tops of the bunks or rollers are out of the water. In that way, they will act somewhat like brakes so that you don’t overshoot the trailer. Once the bow is in, let the thrust of the motor push the boat forward and let the rollers or bunks align the boat into place. Then move forward to keep the hull snug up to the front crank roller. If I can, I will load heading into the current, because I feel I can better control the front of the boat and the current.

I have been in situations, where I have had a partner on the dock with a rope to help guide me, or we’ve even walked out into the water to help us load the boat. Sometimes, you must do what you have to do.

Winds can also be an issue. It might be calm when you launch, and then the wind switches and it’s a side wind, which is handled like a current. Instead of a current however, it’s waves pushed by the wind. Then, there might be waves rolling right in toward the dock and ramp. If it is not that far away and I have a partner with me, I will drop him/her off at the dock to drive around to a more protected ramp. If not, then you do what you have to. Without a partner, it’s difficult to leave the boat unattended at the dock while you get the trailer. So, assuming you have a partner, let him/her off and back the trailer down. Back the trailer down, but not as far as usual, so that the waves don’t blow the boat right on through. This is where the back trailer guides can help keep you centered while the partner pulls the rig out of the water. If it’s safe enough, hook the front of the boat to the trailer and winch it tight. If not, pull the vehicle ahead to get the boat up on solid rollers/bunks.

#4 Early/late season and freezing temperatures and ramps
Early spring and late fall can mean great walleye fishing, but it is often when temperatures hover in the freezing area. This can cause havoc at the boat ramp, especially steep ones. What happens is people are so excited to get out fishing that after they get their boat off, they pull the trailer right out of the water and zoom up the ramp. Usually, the trailers are submerged, so that when the trailer is rapidly pulled out of the water, the water falls on the area where the next person’s vehicle’s wheels will end up. If it’s freezing or below freezing, the first few people are ok, but then everything turns to slick ice. I’ve seen drivers jackknife their vehicle and rig, slip slide all the way down the ramp, even picking up speed. I’ve also seen them sit right at the water’s edge, just spinning out. Four-wheel drive does not help here!

The first answer to this one is to stop as the trailer is at the edge of the ramp and let water drain back into the water. Then pull out slowly until the trailer wheels are just out of the water. Sit for a little bit and then pull up.

Most importantly, check things out before you attempt backing down the ramp. If it is bad enough, bring sand along to put on the ramp. That will help the situation. Usually this is only a problem for an hour or so early in the morning. As I mentioned earlier, a flat ramp is not much of a problem.

#5 Live well plug
With the importance of draining our livewells and boats to ensure that we stop the invasion of aquatic species, such as zebra mussels, I remind us all to remove our plugs when we leave the ramp. However, don’t forget to put in the drain and livewell plugs as we enter the body of water we will be fishing. It sounds like a foolish thought, but I can speak from experience on this one. I remember one specific time several years ago, when I trailered my boat to and from the lake. Like I always did, when I ended the day of fishing, I pulled both livewell and drain plugs. The next day three of us took off for a day of walleye fishing. At the ramp, I put in the drain plug and away we went. A while later, my son said, “I think we’re sitting pretty low to the water.” He opened one of the compartments and there was close to a foot of water in the bottom of the boat.

I couldn’t figure it out, because I had put in the drain plug. When I looked back, I saw that I had put the plug in the livewell drain, which was located just a few inches away from the boat drain. In my hurry, I made a foolish mistake. Well, the bilge came on and we plowed our way to the ramp, where we could work on the situation. If it would have been a windy day and several miles from the boat ramp, it could have been way worse! One of my fishing buddies asks me occasionally, if that was the reason I went to a pontoon! Oh, for his sense of humor!

These are five issues that can often happen to boaters. My hope is that these suggestions will help other boaters avoid problems. Obviously, there are many more that I hope to tackle in a future article.