In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the follies of boat launching take on epic proportions on three special occasions: fishing opener, Memorial Day weekend and July 4th.
Those are the times when ramps are busy, boaters are rusty, and anxiety levels are high. Your fellow boaters are counting on you to demonstrate skill and courtesy.
“The opener is the first mad rush of the year,” said Chris Vinton, a state Department of Natural Resources conservation officer stationed in Perham.
Vinton and other DNR conservation officers have seen it all. There is the guy who can’t back up without jackknifing. Someone will forget to untie the transom straps and the trailer will rise up in the water. A driver will back too far into the water and the tailpipe or vehicle will flood. Someone else won’t back in far enough, and drop their boat on the ramp when they pull away. The boat plug is forgotten and the boat is sinking.
“You can have a good day just sitting down there, watching it all,” said Frankie Dusenka, owner of Frankie’s Live Bait and Marine in Chisago City.
Comical, for sure. But it’s no laughing matter when waiting lines are long, patience is thin and a boater ignores launch etiquette. It’s called “ramp rage.”
“We’ve had the sheriff’s deputies break up some fights,” said Lt. Jackie Glaser, a DNR enforcement supervisor who handles the Lake Minnetonka area.
Said Dusenka: “I’ve seen husband-and-wife situations that are way out of control.”
There is a long checklist of do’s and don’ts, but the No. 1 rule of boat launching is to minimize your time on the ramp. That means packing the boat and preparing it in the parking lot, not when it’s halfway in the water.
“At big launches, it’s critical to be fast but safe,” said Bill Dougherty, co-owner of Rainy Lake Houseboats in International Falls. “The ramp is not a place where you decide to load your boat.”
Nor is it the time for family members to run to the bathroom one last time.
Especially on busy weekends, the experts say it’s critical to have a partner inside the boat while the other adult drives the vehicle. That way the boat can retreat from the launch space while the vehicle is driven to the parking lot.
Mistakes usually happen when people are working in haste or simply lack the skill to artfully back up a trailer. Rookies should practice in empty parking lots using their side mirrors, at least 100 feet at a time. There’s no substitute for practice, but beginners at the ramp should back up slowly, making adjustments gradually and in small increments for best results. Ask for help if you’re in a jam. Offer help when you see someone is having trouble.
“Don’t be in a hurry, but have a plan,” said DNR conservation officer Mitch Lawler of Alexandria.
What follows below is a boat launch checklist to keep ramp traffic moving on the fishing opener and other busy boating weekends.
Before you arrive at the lake
• Update the boat registration. Even if you are launching on short notice, you can register online with the DNR. A confirmation number is valid if decals haven’t arrived in the mail.
• Check that the boat motor will start.
• If you’re inexperienced, practice backing up a minimum of 100 feet at a time using your side mirrors.
• Make sure the boat’s fire extinguisher is charged.
Before you launch
• On busy weekends, you want a person in the boat as a launch partner.
• Coordinate your hand signals before you launch.
• Undo the boat cover and pack fishing rods, tackle boxes, nets, coolers, rain gear, etc., into the boat before you get in line for the ramp.
• Don’t forget the life jackets. You need a throwable flotation device if your boat is 16 feet or longer.
• Remove motor supports and steering locks.
• Make sure the plug is in.
• Turn over the motor just briefly enough to know it will operate.
• Remove transom straps and any other tie-downs, except winch strap.
• Put the boat key into the ignition and make sure that your fuel bulb is pumped.
• If you are alone and there is no one available to help drive the boat, tie a rope onto the bow eye to guide the boat to a location where it’s out of the way for the next launch.
On the ramp
• Don’t save a spot in line for other boats belonging to friends or family.
• When backing up, make adjustments gradually in small amounts for best results.
• Ideally, back the boat in just far enough for it to float, but where you can get to the ratchet strap without stepping into the water.
• If stepping into the water is necessary, be prepared by wearing hip boots or other gear.
• When your final position in the water is right, note the depth of the water against the trailer and return the trailer to that depth when you are removing the boat.
• As soon as the boat is launched, move it away from the ramp to a courtesy dock or other area while the vehicle is parked.
Returning to trailer
• Idle the boat in water away from the ramp, or park it at a courtesy dock while the vehicle driver fetches the trailer.
• Don’t back the trailer too deep in the water, a common mistake that makes loading difficult.
• When winch strap is secured and motor raised, move the boat and trailer to the parking lot.
• Pull plug and drain water from the boat.
• Clear any weeds from the trailer and boat.
• Cooperate with aquatic invasive species inspectors.
• If you are saving live bait, empty lake water from the container and transfer to clean, cool water that was stored in advance.