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How to Back a Boat

By Jack Dyess

Follow these simple checklists for the combination of technique and etiquette to keep you off the "ramp tramp" list.

Boaters seem to come in two categories: those who have little or no difficulty backing a boat trailer, or those who have extreme difficulty. There seems to be little middle ground. However, the skill is not as complicated as it appears. Anyone who can drive an automobile and display a little patience can back a trailer. Here are four rules used by professional 18-wheeler drivers that simplify the process.

1. Watch where you are going.
More specifically, watch where the wheel of your trailer is going. Adjust your outside mirrors so you can see the wheels of your trailer and the ground immediately behind them. Always use the outside mirrors. If you try to turn your head and look through the rear windshield of your automobile you will never be able to see exactly where your trailer is going until it is too late.
2. Determine exactly where you want the trailer to go.
Looking through your outside mirror, pick out a target on the ground no more than four feet behind the wheel that you want the wheel to pass over. Before you start to back, take time to think. Determine exactly which direction you want the wheel to move - either left, right or straight. If you place the trailer wheel in the correct place, the rest of the trailer will also be correctly located.
3. Place your hand at the bottom of your steering wheel.
By doing so, all you need to do is move your hand the direction you want the trailer to go as viewed through your mirror. If you want the trailer to turn to the left, move your steering hand until it is past your left knee. If you want the trailer to move to the right, move your steering hand until it is past your right knee.
4. Travel no more than four feet before stopping.
Back slowly until the trailer wheel is over or near the target you selected. Do not go past it. Never back more than about four feet before stopping. Even if you turned the steering wheel in the opposite direction of the way you should, it is difficult to get into trouble in only four feet. Stop. Start over again at Step No. 2.

If you follow these four steps, repeating as many times as necessary, taking your time, backing slowly, and thinking each movement out in advance, even the least-skilled boater will be backing a trailer confidently and accurately, with only an hour or so of practice.

Five tips for boat ramp etiquette

1. Stop before you get to the boat ramp.
Take everything out of the boat that is not going on the water. Put everything in the boat that is going on the water, i.e., PFDs, coolers, food, etc. Disconnect all tie-downs. Start the engine briefly to ensure that it will start when you get it in the water.
2. If possible, have someone who can drive the boat stay on board.
As you are backing down the ramp, the boat operator should start the engine and as soon as the boat is floating, back it away from the ramp. Immediately move your vehicle and trailer off the ramp so others can use it. A sure indication of a rookie boater is taking more than three minutes on the ramp to launch a boat.
3. If launching or retrieving a boat after dark, always turn off your headlights while on the ramp.
Use only your parking lights. When the vehicle is on the slope of the ramp, your headlights will be shining upward, blinding anyone who is trying to back down the ramp to either side of you. One inconsiderate boater with his headlights on, on the center section of a five-trailer ramp, can prevent anyone else from using the remaining four sections. This can lead to extreme frustration on the part of other boaters and often results in unkind words, or worse.
4. When retrieving your boat at a ramp, move your vehicle and trailer (with boat) off the ramp as soon as possible.
You can open drain plugs, move items from the boat to the vehicle, talk to friends, check for damage, scold your spouse, etc., after you have moved off the ramp. This frees the ramp for other boaters.
5. Never leave your vehicle/trailer parked on the ramp.

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