By: Rick Layzell
I think it’s fair to say that many of us boat with a goal of experiencing the freedom and relaxation of being on the water while also seeking to satisfy our desire to unplug, to destress, and to get away from it all. And I think it’s totally fair to say that none of us want to feel embarrassed or humiliated when our inexperience or lack of preparation leads to challenging moments. And finally, I think we would all agree than none of our crew want to fall victim to any captain’s temper tantrums.
So let’s talk about a few of those moments and the measures we can take to help temper the tantrums to get you back to your original boating goals.
There are hundreds of thousands of small boats, on trailers, that move from lake to lake based on owner desire to experience new waterways or hit new fishing grounds. Getting the boat to the lake is one thing. Backing the boat down the ramp and safely into the water is another. Most honest boaters will tell you that at one point or another they have jackknifed a trailer – doing so on a Saturday morning at a crowded boat ramp can be a humbling experience and with a little practice this is totally avoidable.
Pro Tip #1 - Check your trailer and adopt a trailering guide for maintenance before getting underway. Once you arrive at the ramp and are waiting for your turn, unplug your truck to trailer wiring harness (while not mandatory this is still an electrical connection), remove your transom straps and get your boat ready to launch (did somebody say drain plug?). Using your side mirrors as your guide, align your trailer wheels up to the target (the dock you want to tie the boat to is ideal). The easiest backing up method is when you can get a straight shot into the water. If you must come in at an angle then take your time on the approach and the turn and teach your crew to remain visible while they help guide you towards the target. It’s perfectly fine to make your swing and then realign truck & trailer to get a straight shot. In all cases, use your side and rear view mirrors – spinning your head to look over your shoulder is not the answer. A single axle trailer needs only the slightest steering adjustments to move the trailer from one side to the other. If you are towing a tandem axle trailer then your adjustments will take a bit longer and your turns will need to be a bit wider. Take your time and back up slowly – a race down the ramp rarely yields positive results.
Pro Tip # 2– Please - Practice launching your boat when the launch ramp is not crowded. Work it into your schedule to practice backing down the ramp (or even backing around an empty parking lot) mid-week or in the early evenings. Whatever you decide, please don’t put yourself in a position where you have 10 or more other boats – all with self proclaimed expert backer uppers - waiting while you learn that backing up a trailer requires practice.
I’ve seen hundreds of families experience far too much stress on the launch ramp and the arguments start before the boat is even off the trailer. The anxiety of a stressed-out captain and crew is not the right way to start your day on any waterway. A little bit of preparedness and a commitment to practice will get your day started smoothly and happily - free and clear of any temper tantrums.
Docking – ahhhh docking. The moment that makes or breaks a Captain’s pride…and crushes or flourishes relationships. Whatever type or style of boat you are operating, your ability to safely land your craft on the dock is a moment of honour….or sheer disaster. Like many avid boaters I’ve been at the helm of dozens of different styles of watercraft and the one thing I can unequivocally tell you is that no two boats behave exactly the same. With a plethora of different hull designs and power options the learning never ends. And the fights at the dock can be as difficult as the arguments on the launch ramp and these too can be totally avoided.
Pro Tip #3 – Remember how to be a good captain. Communicate with your crew and have a plan. Getting the boat safely to the dock is not solely the captain’s job and giving everyone on board a role in the process not only gets buy in, it also take some of the weight off the skippers shoulders. Let your crew share in the pride of a safe landing!
Before you get to the dock, have your crew make sure your fenders are in place (ideally at or close to the right height) and your mooring lines are ready. Watching boats bounce off the docks while an unprepared crew is fumbling to find fenders buried in storage compartments is rarely going to result in happy on-board conversation.
Pro Tip #4 – Have a float plan and know your return procedures. If you’re heading back to the launch ramp then trim the engine all the way up once your vessel is safely on the trailer (you can lower before departure if needed), secure transom tie downs, check your wiring systems and take out the drain plug.
All captain & crew must have full awareness of their surroundings. If you’re docking in a busy marina then there are danger points everywhere – the bow pulpit of your neighbours' boat, other vessels moving in the channel and more. If you are coming back to the launch ramp, then you must know where to dock or how to hold your position in the water until it’s your turn. You also need to communicate with your crew to decide who is backing the empty trailer down for the reload and the steps the rest of your crew need to be taking. Remember that there are common courtesies for fellow boaters.
Slow and steady will always win the race at the dock. There are lots of online videos of highly skilled professional captain’s who can ‘come in hot and land perfectly.' Unless you have logged thousands of hours at the helm like they have, then just slow down.
Pro Tip #5 – Know your angles. If you are side docking to starboard – bring the bow of the boat in at about a 20 degree angle, have your crew – when safe to do so – jump to the dock with your bow line or loop the line around a dock cleat from on board and then use your engine(s) to reverse the stern into the dock.
A boat handling course is one of the least expensive investments any new captain and crew can make. There are firms that come directly to your boat to share their techniques and tips for you & your crew. Most of us took driver training for cars when we first started – do yourself a favour and do the same for your boat.
If you are in Ontario then a trip through the Trent-Severn or Rideau Canal lock systems is a must do. But don’t kid yourself – tempers can escalate when couples are attempting their first entry into a crowded lock. See Pro Tip #3 above, communicate, communicate, communicate and then slow down. The locks have great staff who want to help ensure you have a great experience – sans temper tantrums.
Before you head to the water take some time to educate yourself. Read tips like those that can be found here on the BoatBlurb, watch videos, take a drivers course and talk to your crew. From my own perspective – I have been boating for over 30 years, primarily with boats 17 – 23’. In 2020 we bought our first cruiser and immediately hired a professional trainer to help me learn my piloting techniques (worth every dime). Over the past couple of months I have watched dozens of boat handling videos and I am actively taking my marine radio course.
There are lots of little moments on the water that can make or break the positive experience that you set out to create and the relaxation you sought to experience. So talk to each other, take time to practice, respect that unless you’ve been boating for decades you won’t know it all – and even those that have been boating for decades still have lots to learn.
Small investments of practice time, coupled with open crew communications and a willingness to listen, wrapped in respect for the water and your fellow boaters will give you a net of a better boating experience and in the end – you’ll find your freedom on the water without the stress or anxiety of the temper tantrums.