How Launching a Boat Works

Launching a boat during a drought
Make sure to do some research before launching -- low water levels can make a simple launch very difficult.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

If you hang around boat owners, you might hear a particular joke come into conversation. "The second happiest day of my life was when I bought a boat. The happiest day was when I sold it." Owning a boat and taking it out on the water can be a lot of fun, but it also requires a lot of work. Without the proper preparation beforehand, that work can be stressful and sometimes even dangerous. Owners might even question why they ever bought a boat in the first place.

Go to any facility that has ramps for launching boats and ask around for stories about failed boat launches. There's a good chance you'll get an earful from regulars about various chaotic -- and often humorous -- mishaps. You might hear a story about someone who managed to launch an entire car into a lake along with a boat or a tale of an owner stranding an expensive boat on a concrete ramp. A lot of things can go wrong during even the simplest boat launch.


It doesn't help that some boat ramps get very busy at the height of boating season. What might start out as a mildly stressful boat launch can escalate into a frenetic rush to get a boat into the water if there are a lot of other boaters waiting their turns at the ramp. Anxiety, frustration and a lack of focus can lead to disaster. And it might seem like the more complicated the launch gets, the more people are standing around watching.

But with the right frame of mind and a little preparation beforehand, getting a boat out onto the water doesn't have to be a huge ordeal. It's important to approach a boat launch calmly and with attention to detail. If you take your time during the prep work phase, the rest of the launch should move along smoothly.

We're going to walk you through the steps you should follow when you plan to launch a boat. Hopefully this article will help make your next boat launching experience a pleasant one. We'll start by taking a look at the equipment you'll be using during a boat launch.


Boat Launching Terms

Holding the bow line while launching a boat
A man keeps hold of the bow line as he lowers his boat into the water.
Al Fenn/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Few hobbies have as deep a lexicon of jargon as boating. If you're new to boating, the terms and phrases other boaters use can seem overwhelming. Just learning the names for all the parts on a boat (or even a boat trailer) can be daunting. Let's dispense with some of that mystery right away and talk about the various equipment you'll need to work with when launching a boat.

We'll start with the boat itself. The main body of the boat is the hull. The front of the boat is the bow (also called the forward section or fore). There should be a place on the bow where you can secure a rope (or line, in boating terms). The correct term for such a rope is a bow line. Bow lines become very important during boat launches. The boat may also have a special bolt that allows the owner to attach a bow strap from the boat trailer to the boat, securing it in the front.


Another line that attaches to the bow of the ship is the boat trailer's winch line. Boaters use a winch to load the boat back onto the trailer. While winches can help secure a boat to a trailer, that wasn't their intended function. Many winch manufacturers warn boaters that their winches aren't rated to secure a boat to a trailer and could break if used that way. To secure a boat to a trailer safely, you should use straps and cables designed specifically for that purpose.

The back end of the boat is the stern (also called the aft). On the underside of the stern of most boats is a flat section of the hull called the transom. Many boats have transom eyes, which are special U-bolts that attach to the hull of the boat. Boaters can run a transom strap through these eyes to secure a boat to a trailer -- the strap passes through the transom eyes and attaches to the boat trailer on the port and starboard (left and right) sides.

Boats and docks have special fittings called cleats. The purpose of cleats is to provide a place for boaters to secure a line -- to make fast, in boating lingo -- from the boat to the dock. If you're launching a boat by yourself, you'll need to secure your boat to a dock after launching it. You don't want your boat floating off without you!

To protect the boat once it's in the water, most owners use either buoys, bumpers, fenders or a combination of the three. These are particularly important if you plan to launch a boat by yourself. Without protection, your boat could become damaged as it bumps against the dock or rocks in the water.

Because boats can sometimes take on water during operation, they have drains. Boat owners use plugs to close these drains while in the water, then remove the plugs once the boat is out of the water. Without the plugs installed, a boat will sink as water enters through the drains. It's also a good idea to have a bailer on hand -- a bucket you can use to dump water over the side of the boat if you take on too much.

Boat trailers often have rollers on them. Rollers are wheels that allow a boat to slide up or down a trailer without damaging it. Some trailers also have guide-ons, rails that help guide a boat into the right position during the loading process. It's kind of like the gutter guards you find at most bowling alleys.

Because you'll most likely be leaving your vehicle and trailer unattended while you're boating, it's a good idea to invest in coupler locks or tire locks. A coupler lock fits over the connection between your trailer and your vehicle, making it much more difficult for someone else to unhitch your trailer and abscond with it. Tire locks are similar to the boot devices police use to make sure the owner of an illegally parked vehicle can't drive away. Tire locks immobilize wheels.

Next, we'll take a look at the steps you'll need to follow to prepare for a boat launch.

Preparations for Launching a Boat

Drought warning sign for boaters
Pay attention to any warning signs in the boat launch area like this one at Lake Mead -- they could save your boat!
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Before you set out to launch a boat, there are a few things you should do to prepare. First, if you're not experienced at towing a trailer, you'll want time to practice in a large, open space like an unused parking lot. You'll need to practice making turns, accelerating, braking and backing up. Since launching a boat requires you to drive in reverse down a ramp into the water, you'll need to be comfortable with backing up a trailer -- read How Backing Up Towed Vehicles Works for more information.

Once you're familiar with the way the tow vehicle handles while pulling a trailer, it's time to do some research. Before you head off to a launching point, make sure you know what the conditions are like. What is the ramp made of? Is it concrete or covered in gravel? Is it a natural launch site, meaning you'll need to back down a hill or natural slope? How steep are the ramps? Will your vehicle be able to back down the ramp and move back up safely? How busy is the facility? How many ramps are available? It's better to know the answer to all these questions before you head out to go boating. You don't want to get to the facility and find out there's a mile-long line for one ramp, or that your vehicle can't make it up and down the ramp at all.


Before you hit the road, you should make sure that your boat trailer is in working condition. Test the lights on the trailer. Check the inflation on the trailer's tires and look for wear and tear. Examine the straps securing your boat to your trailer and make sure they're in good condition. Maintaining your equipment will help head off potential accidents on the road and at the boat ramp.

Removing trailer safety straps
To keep things moving quickly, remove the safety straps before you get to the boat ramp.
Al Fenn/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Many boat launching areas have a large space set aside for pre-launch preparations. As a courtesy to others, make sure to use this space rather than the boat ramp for your pre-launch activities. Those should include:

  • Loading the boat with the equipment you'll be taking with you -- this could include anything from fishing gear, ice chests and water ski equipment to your standard safety equipment (lifejackets and safety lines, for example)
  • Disconnecting the wiring from your vehicle to the trailer -- otherwise you could risk shorting out your vehicle's wiring later when you back into the water
  • Using plugs to close any open drains and make sure they are secure
  • Putting the boat's key into the console
  • Removing the safety straps securing the boat to the trailer
  • Detaching the winch line from the bow of the boat
  • Connecting a bow line to the bow and coil it out of the way so that it doesn't snag on the trailer
  • Making sure you have enough fuel in your boat
  • Going over the launch procedure with your partner, if you have one -- and working out hand signals between the two of you to use during the launch

Taking these steps before reaching the boat ramp will save you a lot of time during the actual launch. Not only will it make the experience less stressful, it will also help you avoid the cold stares of a dozen fishermen as you try to get your boat into the water. Little annoys other boaters as much as someone preparing a boat for launch while on the ramp itself.

Now let's take a look at what you'll need to do during the actual launch.

Steps to Launch a Boat

Using teamwork to launch a boat
A couple works together to launch a boat from a trailer.
Al Fenn/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

So you've prepared your boat and trailer, the ramp is available and it's time to get your boat in the water. What do you do next?

First, you need to back your trailer down the boat ramp. You need to do this slowly and carefully. Keep an eye on your mirrors to make sure you're on the ramp securely. Remember that at this point your boat is no longer secured to the trailer -- a sudden jolt could cause your boat to roll off and hit the ground. Your boat will begin to float free as the trailer enters the water. If the water is shallow, you may have to back the trailer farther into the water and give the boat a push to free it.


If you're driving the vehicle and you're working with another person, that person should stand to the side of the trailer and hold the bow line. Your partner should communicate with you using hand signs -- yelling out instructions can cause confusion if there are multiple ramps at the facility. Make sure to tell your partner to keep the bow line slack -- if the boat enters the water quickly your partner could get pulled in after it. Your partner's job is to hold the bow line and keep control of the boat once it's in the water. That will prevent the boat from floating off without you.

Once the boat is in the water, you can pull your vehicle forward and clear the way for the next boater. Do this slowly, and remember to check your mirrors to make sure you haven't forgotten to detach any straps or lines -- otherwise your boat is going to follow you back to the parking lot. Your partner can get into the boat and pilot it to a nearby dock. After you park your vehicle and trailer and secure your belongings, you can join your partner at the dock and head out on the water.

If you're launching a boat by your lonesome, you'll need to take a little more time. First, you should back up your trailer very slowly and stop as your boat begins to lift off the trailer. Park your vehicle and activate the parking brake before exiting the tow vehicle. Walk back to your boat and give it a gentle push to move it all the way into the water. Secure your boat to a dock quickly using two lines and return to your vehicle. Move your vehicle and trailer out of the way and park it before returning to your boat.

Ideally, the launching process should take only a few minutes. Experienced boaters may even want to try a technique called jerking. Jerking requires two people -- one in the boat while it's on the trailer and the other person driving the tow vehicle. The driver backs down the ramp at a good clip, then hits the brakes just as the back of the boat begins to float. The boat's momentum will cause it to continue to move backward until it's in the water. The person in the boat can fire up the boat's engine and pilot it out of the way. It only takes a moment and it's pretty impressive when it works properly.

But it's a tricky maneuver, and a little mistake can cause a big accident. Hit the brakes too early and the boat will come crashing down on the ramp. Hit the brakes too quickly and the tow vehicle might get stuck in the water. For most boaters, it's better to use caution when launching a boat.

Now you're ready to head out on the water and have fun. But what happens at the end of the day when it's time to go back home? Keep reading to find out how to return a boat to its trailer.

Loading a Boat into a Trailer

Boat trailer winch
A close up shot of a boat trailer's winch
Hubart Inabinet/iStockphoto

All good things must come to an end, and that includes a day of boating. When you're ready to head back to land, you should follow these steps:

  1. Pilot your boat toward the ramp, keeping in mind the water becomes shallower as you get closer to the ramp.
  2. If you are working with a partner, you can get out of the boat at the dock and bring your vehicle down to the boat ramp. If you're working alone, you'll have to secure your boat first before heading to the parking lot.
  3. Back the trailer down the ramp into the water. Use the bow line to guide your boat onto the trailer. If your trailer has guide-ons, the boat should settle into the proper spot on the trailer. If not, you'll have to guide the boat into position by hand.
  4. Attach the winch line to the bow of the boat. Use the winch to pull the boat the rest of the way up onto the ramp and in position. You can use either a manual hand-crank winch or an electric winch to do this.
  5. Secure the boat to the trailer. You don't have to attach every single strap and cable to the boat, but it's important to make sure the boat won't roll off as soon as you drive up the ramp.
  6. Once your boat is secure on the trailer, slowly guide your vehicle back up the ramp.
  7. Drive your vehicle to the post-launch area.
  8. Once at the post launch area, unload your equipment from your boat, remove the key, secure the boat to the trailer using straps and cables and reattach the wiring from your trailer to your vehicle.
  9. If you have a tarp, now's the time to secure the tarp over the boat.
Loading a boat
A man loads a boat onto a trailer in anticipation of an approaching storm.
Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images

Just as you should prepare your boat before approaching the ramp, you should move your boat out of the ramp area before you start unloading it. Other people may need to use the ramp. It's proper launch etiquette to clear the ramp as soon as it is safe to do so.


That's all there is to it. If you follow these steps for launching and loading your boat, you should minimize the chances for accidents, headaches and embarrassment. And you'll also know what to do if you see someone else having trouble launching a boat. With a little preparation and a healthy dose of patience, you'll be destined for smooth sailing.

What really goes on when you launch a boat? In the next section, we'll take a closer look at the physics behind it all.


The Physics of a Boat Launch

Boat trailer with rollers
The rollers on this boat trailer make it easier to launch and retrieve a boat without damaging it.
Dave White/iStockphoto

To really understand a boat launch, it's helpful to understand Newton's laws of motion. The first law of motion states that an object tends to remain in its current state of motion until it encounters an external force.

When an object is in motion, it has momentum. Momentum specifically refers to mass in motion. An object's momentum depends on its mass and velocity. Velocity, like acceleration and force, is a vector quantity. That means it has both a magnitude (amount) and a direction. Speed, on the other hand, is a scalar quantity -- it only has a magnitude.


Momentum (p) is equal to the mass (m) of an object multiplied by its velocity (v), which we express mathematically as:

p = mv

That means the momentum of an object increases as velocity increases. It also means if two objects with different masses move at the same velocity, the object with the greater mass has more momentum.

The second law of motion deals with acceleration, which refers to the rate at which an object changes its velocity. The law states that the acceleration of an object is directly proportional to the force applied to the object and inversely proportional to the object's mass. That means the more force you apply to an object in a particular direction, the faster it will move in that direction. But it also means that an object with more mass will have a lower rate of acceleration than a less massive object when the same amount of force is applied to both.

We can express the second law of motion as an equation:

F = ma

When you drive your vehicle down a boat ramp, the vehicle, trailer and boat are all moving as one mass together at the same velocity. If you were to jam on the brakes, the vehicle would stop first, followed by the trailer attached to the vehicle and finally the boat. If the boat's momentum is great enough to overcome the friction holding it in place on the trailer, it will roll off the trailer and into the water (or on the ground if you stopped short).

Once the boat hits the water, we have a new set of physical factors to consider. The most important one is buoyancy. Buoyancy refers to the upward force exerted on an object that is in a fluid. An object's buoyancy depends on the relationship between the object's weight and the volume of the water it displaces. The upward force exerted on an object is equal to the volume of water it displaces. If the buoyant force is equal to or greater than the weight of the object, the object floats. In physics, this is known as the Archimedes Principle.

For a boat to float, enough of the boat's surface must make contact with the water to generate the proper force of buoyancy. If only a small part of the boat touches the water, the volume of displaced fluid won't be great enough to counteract the boat's weight and keep it afloat.

There are other elements of physics at play when launching a boat. For example, the engine of your vehicle has to generate the right amount of torque to go up the boat ramp. You can also use a combination of physics and trigonometry to figure out the ideal slope for a boat ramp. So when you go boating, remember that you're really doing science.

To learn more about boating, set sail for the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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