When Water Does More Than Float Your Boat

By BoatUS Trailering Editors

Launching a boat is tricky enough, but when the body of water has a current or tide, it's a whole new ballgame.

Drawing of how river currents affect launching your boat

River currents don't just matter once your boat is underway — they can also make life interesting when you're launching and retrieving your boat. Real interesting, in fact. A few months ago, a man backed his tow vehicle and trailer halfway into the St. Joseph River in Michigan and took his boat downstream, leaving his trailer and tow vehicle on the ramp. He stayed within sight of the ramp in case anybody wanted to launch. Well, nobody came by, but that wasn't the issue. The St. Joseph River current was running, and the next thing he knew, his boat trailer and tow vehicle had been pulled into the river by the swift-moving water. Let's just say "retrieval" took on a whole new meaning that day.

River currents present challenges. The good news is, many boat ramp designs take this into account. Many ramps are located in small bays where the current isn’t as strong or that have breakwaters that decrease the flow of water past the ramp. The bad news, is you'll eventually find yourself at a ramp watching the water move by rapidly.

Terry Grantz of Boatpittsburgh.com notes that river currents always pick up speed after a heavy rain upstream. He speaks from experience: In Pittsburgh, the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers combine to form the Ohio, all powerful rivers with strong currents. "If the current is fast, go another day," Grantz advises.

This is where a dock becomes a boater's best friend, especially if it's upstream of the boat ramp. "A common practice on rivers is to have lines tied to both the bow and the stern and have someone get on the upstream dock holding both lines," Grantz says. "This way, by letting a line out or taking it in, you can align the boat onto the trailer or move it off the trailer and secure it to the dock." Where there are tidal flows in addition to river current, docks positioned on either side of the ramp would be necessary to make use of this technique during both ebb and flood tides.

Inland Marina owner Ron Riecken in Evansville, Indiana, has watched boaters handle the Ohio River current flowing from east to west. He notes that boat ramps are built on an angle, which presents its own problems. "The ramps that angle tend to fill up with silt and are unusable until someone cleans them off with a backhoe," he notes. "The trick to launching and retrieving in the current is to not put the trailer in the water very far. You approach from downstream at an angle until the bow rests on the trailer, then power the boat around to line up and power on, all the way to the winch."

Dan Armitage writes for BoatUS Trailering and launches in rivers throughout the Midwest. If there's no angled ramp going into the river, he positions his trailer at an angle. "When launching, use two lanes for the trailer," he advises, "because this allows the trailer and the boat to back into the current; the transom should be pushing [albeit at an angle] against the direction of the flow. The moment the stern floats free, it will swing downcurrent, allowing the operator to gain immediate control of the boat by powering into the current." Unlike our friend along the St. Joseph River, Dan moves his truck and trailer out of the water as soon as the boat is free. Here's one more tip from Dan: If the current has the potential of swamping the transom, follow Grantz's suggestion and go another day.

Grantz uses Dan's approach when retrieving, too. "I put the boat perpendicular to the current and get a feel for how fast the boat is pushed downstream. Then, when making the approach to the trailer, I keep the boat perpendicular to shore and aim for a spot upriver and let the current push the boat downriver as the boat moves forward [toward the trailer]. If the timing is right, the boat will go right on the trailer. Sometimes this takes a few tries to get the right speed and approach point. "Also, once the bow lands on the trailer, it is often necessary to turn the wheel downriver to keep the stern of the boat in line with the trailer."

Both Armitage and Grantz encourage anyone trying this to have an extra set of hands available to assist in any river or tide maneuvering. Hopefully there will be someone on shore who has backed the trailer to the ramp. If you have three people available, drop two off at the dock so one gets the truck and the other assists when and where needed during retrieval.

Water moves fast so in order to be prepared, it's important to always be a step ahead of it. 

This article was published in Fall 2012 issue of Trailering Magazine.

Current Events

Contributor to BoatUS Angler and charter-fishing captain Steve Chaconas has launched in the Potomac River tidal water for decades. This year he decided to try something different.

He uses a pair of Power-Poles shallow-water anchors at the boat ramp.

Power Pole shallow-water anchors at work

Some boaters use a single pole. Here's how they work: The battery-operated hydraulic poles are mounted to the transom, and dropped into the water by a wireless (optional) remote control. Originally designed as an option for anglers to throwing out an anchor in water depths between four and 10 feet (depending on the model), the Power-Pole is also capable of holding the boat in place in a fast moving current. When you're ready to leave, simply push the button on the remote control and the pole(s) move into the original position on the transom. These are not recommended for boats larger than 28 feet, and should not be used when nobody is aboard (the wireless remote control has a range of about 30 feet). While Steve uses them to keep the boat in place in shallow water while fishing, he also puts them to use when the tide is running fast. A similar product is made by Minn Kota. Both are sold at WestMarine.com



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