There is nothing quite so comical, and at the same time disturbing, as two elderly men physically shaping up to each other at a boat ramp. I have witnessed this spectacle once, at a ramp on the NSW south coast and I have to say the memory is still fresh more than 10 years down the track.
The ramp was particularly busy and it was a hot day. Elderly Gent A was of the opinion that he was next in line to launch, while elderly Gent B sought to dispute his place in the queue. What ensued was much yelling, arm waving, finger pointing, face reddening, huffing, puffing and stomping backwards and forwards in a threatening manner. As live theatre goes, it was brilliant, but the entertainment value was largely lost on the many other boaties who were waiting to launch and retrieve.
Eventually the stand-off was resolved by one of the wives of said flustered gents ordering her spouse to cease and desist in no uncertain terms. "You silly old bugger" was one of her more cutting comments, as I recall. Order was restored and boats again left and arrived in a mostly orderly manner.
In over 19 years of watching trailerboat owners launch and retrieve their boats, Trevor Hogan has pretty much seen it all, including the odd physical altercation borne out of frustration. As facility manager for Patterson River, one of Australia's largest staffed boat ramps, on the eastern side of Melbourne's Port Phillip Bay, he is uniquely placed to offer insights into the dynamics of a busy boat ramp and the best ways for boat owners to make the most of their launching and retrieving experience.
At the peak of Melbourne's summer boat season, when the snapper are running at their most feverish, Hogan and his 12-or-so staff can be up at 2am and can still be shepherding boats in and out of the water at 8 or 9pm. Up to 600 boats can pass through the facility in a day, with room for 375 trailers in the main carpark.
Hogan says the overriding issue for the efficient running of a boat ramp is patience on behalf of its users. He says that tempers can flare due to delays that can largely be avoided by boaties simply having a little consideration and helping each other out.
A helping hand
"We see it all the time where a guy who is obviously having a bit of trouble launching his boat is holding things up," says Hogan. "Sometimes it's a bloke who is new to boating and who is struggling with the process and my message is, instead of just sitting in your car getting frustrated and watching the guy, get out and offer a helping hand.
"Gone are the days when people used to come down to a boat ramp with a few beers and sit and watch people get into difficulties. They'd sit there and laugh or yell out comments and take photos, but not one would offer a helping hand," he said.
"People, especially new boaties, are under a bit of pressure when they come to a boat ramp, particularly when it's busy, and it really is up to the more experienced boaties to lend a helping hand when someone is obviously struggling."
Hogan says there are a few critical areas of launching and retrieving that boaties need to pay particular attention to.
"Number one from my point of view is that people need to make sure their boats are well serviced and ready to be put in the water, especially if they haven't been used for a while.
"We see so many cases where people turn up with flat batteries, engines that won't start or frozen steering and we have wheels literally fall off trailers on the ramp. Steering cables can seize up over winter when the grease that lubricates the cable solidifies.
Then the unsuspecting owner launches his boat and gets into all kinds of strife when the steering won't work and he's surrounded by other boats coming and going.
"When it comes to flat batteries, we have a policy that we won't jump-start boats - because all that happens is that the boat goes out and, as often happens, when it comes time to come home the battery is still flat and they have to be towed in. The message is, if you have a flat battery there's obviously something wrong that needs fixing. Get it repaired before you come down to the ramp.
"It really comes down to having your boat maintained and serviced so that you know it's ready to launch."
Bung in the bungs
"And when it comes to bungs, as far as I'm concerned there are only two types of boaties: those who have already left their bungs out and those who will. We've had numerous occasions where a guy is bailing furiously while the bungs are sitting there within easy reach. I've personally waded over and grabbed the bungs and screwed them in and the guys look at me like I'm a genius. Sometimes you've gotta laugh," he smiles.
Other common mistakes include releasing the safety chain and winch cable before backing the boat down the ramp.
"This can result in that horrible noise made when fibreglass meets concrete," he says. "I've heard it too many times - it's not a pretty sight seeing a shiny new boat lying on its side on the ramp."
Hogan's advice for inexperienced boaties is to practise everything before they come near a ramp.
"Especially when it comes to boat preparation and backing trailers, they can't get too much practice. Do it away from the ramps and crowds when there is no pressure and you'll be better prepared for launching," he says.
"And once you're at the ramp, don't be too shy to ask for help. At our facility we have people ask for help frequently and we'll send a staff member down to the ramp to assist. In cases where people are new to boating, we'll even give them our phone number so they can call us when they're coming back in so we can help with retrieving their boat.
"Another situation that can be a problem is where people come into the ramp area too fast with a bow wave you could surf off. It might be on the five knot speed limit, but sometimes this is still too fast in a confined waterway and then you have all these boats that are tied up being smashed into the jetty. It's about using common sense and some consideration for those around you."
"Consideration also applies when launching or retrieving in the dark. I repeatedly have to remind people to switch off their headlights when they're on the ramp. If you're trying to back a trailer down and the other guys on the ramp have their headlights on, you're driving blind and can't see what's behind you, so it's a matter of courtesy and thinking of others," says Hogan.
Young children and boat ramps is a combination that requires extra attention, says Hogan, especially during launching.
"We had a case a while back where, as the boat came off the trailer, the car slid backwards into the water with a young child still strapped into the back seat," he said. "By the time we got the child out, the car was floating. My advice is never leave kids in the car. Either put them in the boat or at least have someone keep an eye on them until the boat is in the water."
Once the boat is in the water, Hogan says people should move it out of the way so that others can use the ramp quickly.
"People need to remember that others are waiting behind them. If they have to park their trailers, they should tie their boats up away from the ramp to allow others to park their boats as they launch."
Hogan has a few tips when it's time to put the boat back on the trailer. Firstly, he says that people should know how to use their trailers properly.
"If you have a drive-on roller trailer, learn how to use it," he says. "People need to drive their boat up to the winch post and not waste time manually winching the boat onto the trailer. It's the difference between taking five minutes or five seconds and can make a big difference to boat ramp wait times."
Conversely, Hogan says if people are standing in the vicinity when a boat is being driven onto the trailer, they need to keep out of the way.
"I've seen plenty of people knocked out by anchors as boats are driven up to winch posts," he says.
"And once you've secured the boat, drive off the ramp and well out of the way before you fix your tie-downs and tidy up the boat, so that others can get access."
Inappropriate footwear is also a source of occasional injury, with thongs the overwhelming offender.
"Thongs and boat ramps just don't mix. I've seen a lot of nasty injuries over the years from people slipping over and smacking their heads.
"It all really comes down to consideration for others, patience and keeping your eye out around you," says Hogan. "And again, if you see someone who needs a hand, do the Aussie thing and help them out. After all, we were all 'newbies' once."
Novice boaties might also want to consider using a checklist when launching and retrieving. In the heat of the moment it's easy to become flustered and forget critical items. By listing the various tasks that need to be performed in order, such as checking that the trailer shackle is locked before heading off and, once at the ramp, releasing the tie-down straps, checking the bungs, trimming the motor and ensuring you have attached a bowline for tying up, you will develop confidence and ensure you have a safe and enjoyable day on the water.
Following are some tips for improving your time on the ramp and in the water:
Before you leave home:
Check all safety equipment is onboard
Start the engine to ensure the battery is charged
Make sure you have adequate fuel
Check tie-down straps, safety chains and the trailer hitch
Park well clear of the launch area where you are not blocking traffic
Place all items in the boat that you plan to use during the trip
Turn the battery switch on
Take the outboard engine off its travel rests
Make sure the keys are in the ignition
Pump the fuel bulb
Remove the tie-down straps
Connect the winch handle
Connect a bow rope to the boat
Check the bungs
If it's your first time at the ramp, take time to watch others launch and retrieve and check the water depth
On the ramp:
Remove children from the car
If in the dark, switch your headlights off
Make sure all children are wearing life jackets
Make sure there is no one standing behind you when reversing down the ramp
Disconnect the safety chain
Disconnect the winch
Then ease the boat off the trailer and, using the bow rope, lead it to an area away from the ramp. If driving the boat off the trailer, make sure the engine is at the correct height. Start the engine and have someone push you gently off the trailer, keeping an eye out around you. Then move clear of the ramp, slowly and with consideration for others in the area.
Before driving back to the ramp, check to ensure the trailer hasn't been tampered with
Make sure the winch strap has sufficient slack to retrieve the boat
Position your trailer taking into account prevailing currents and winds
If possible, drive the boat smoothly up to the winch post, making sure everyone is clear before coming to a halt
Ensure the safety chain and winch strap are attached before switching off the engine
Drive off to an area away from the ramp to allow others access
Switch off the battery
Secure the tie-downs
Raise the motor onto the travel rests
Remove the bungs
Make a slow and thorough final check of the boat and trailer before departing
Special thanks to Bar Crusher Boats for their assistance with the photography for this feature.