Just as in life, proper etiquette plays a big role in boating. And perhaps nowhere is etiquette more essential—and appreciated—than at the launch ramp. It’s here that discourteous boaters create havoc by not adhering to standard practices or showing up ill prepared to handle the task at hand. And it’s also here that those breaches of etiquette quickly have a ripple effect. Launch lines rapidly grow, frazzled boaters make more mistakes under the pressure, and tempers flare.

Want to take the stress out of the equation, showcase good manners to your fellow water users, and yes, also get your boat and crew on and off the water as fast as possible?

How to launch a boat:

  • Never approach the ramp unprepared.

  • Make sure both drivers—boat and tow vehicle—know their roles.

  • Follow the same rules on your return to the ramp.

  • Always unload away from the launch area.

Now, let's dive a little deeper into these basic steps and guidelines during boat launching.



Be Prepared

Novice and discourteous trailer boaters often make the same mistake. They pull onto the ramp before they’re actually ready to launch, hogging that precious real estate while they load the day’s gear, ready lines, install the drain plug or, worse, discover a dead battery or a finicky engine.

Proper ramp etiquette dictates that you do all of your pre-launch preparation before approaching the ramp. Larger facilities often have designated “make-ready” areas for boaters to prepare their boats and crew. At smaller ramps, find a spot out of the way of traffic flow. It’s in these prep areas that you’ll load gear, ready lines, and remove those tie-downs but also put a driver in the boat (if not solo), turn on the blower, and, ideally, make sure the engine starts. (Tip? Briefly start the engine on a flush hose at home before you leave to avoid last-minute surprises.)

Only when you’re ready to actually launch should you approach the ramp or queue up in line.

Know Your Role

The smoothest launches happen when both tow vehicle and boat driver know and have practiced their roles.

As tow vehicle driver, make sure you know how the trailer will respond in reverse so that you don’t back in the wrong direction or jackknife the trailer. An empty parking lot is a good spot to practice. Use the marked lanes (maybe even set up cones) to simulate backing your trailer onto and down the ramp, noting how the trailer responds to your input at the steering wheel and how the increased length of vehicle and trailer affect turning radiuses. Getting things down pat before you ever hit the ramp will lead to a stress-free launch later.

As the boat driver, be in position at the helm before you head to the ramp, ready to start the craft once you’re in the water. Once backed into position, trim the drive down enough to ensure cooling and adequate handling response, check to make sure the path behind is clear, then start the engine, shift into reverse and back away from the launch lane.

If there’s a courtesy dock to load and unload passengers, tie up if there’s available space. If not, idle away from the ramp, returning once your passengers are ready to board.

how to launch a boat

Make use of courtesy docks if available to load and unload passengers so as not to hold up fellow boaters waiting to use the launch ramp.

Always follow the rules

As in launching, good etiquette demands you be equally quick and efficient when it’s time to load.

The first approach to the ramp area should simply be to drop off the tow vehicle driver and passengers at the dock, idling back out into clear waters to await the arrival of your trailer. Unless the ramp is quiet, don’t be tempted to unload gear; you’ll just slow others from getting into position.

As in launching, boat and tow-vehicle drivers should work as a team. If you’re the tow vehicle driver, wait your turn and when ready, back the trailer into the water. If you’re the boat driver, get your craft into position once you see your tow vehicle approaching and, when the trailer is properly submerged, idle the boat forward onto the trailer, giving just a nudge of power to push the craft the last few feet up the bunks to the winch post.

Never “power load” your craft onto a trailer that’s not deep enough in the water, applying throttle to force the hull up the trailer bunks. It’s a serious breach of ramp etiquette as the engine’s thrust can erode the bottom, creating shallow bars in the ramp approach.

Once the boat is held on the trailer by friction, shut the engine off, make certain the drive or engine is fully trimmed, then move forward to the bow and attach the winch strap and safety chain. When finished, signal the driver and take a seat. The vehicle driver should then pull forward and clear the ramp.

Unload and load away from the launch

Just as when getting ready to launch, unload your belongings and finish securing the boat away from the launch ramp. This will ensure other boaters have free access to the ramp area…as well as earn you lots of positive karma.

Looking for more trips and tricks for boat launching and trailering? Read...

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in September 2008 and updated in March 2019.

Written by: Jeff Hemmel
Jeff Hemmel writes for boats.com, Boating, PersonalWatercraft.com, and Powersports Business. The former Senior Editor at Watercraft World, Jeff is a multi-time award winner as well as a 2008 inductee into the IJSBA Hall of Fame. His first book, "The Anti-Pirate Potato Cannon...and 101 Other Things For Young Mariners To Try, Do, & Build On the Water," received a bronze medal in the 2010 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards. For more info, visit Jeff Hemmel's website.