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An Outdoor View: Chaos at the boat ramp

Posted: July 10, 2014 - 4:37pm

Let’s talk about one of the most hazardous areas for small boats, their owners and passengers, the launch ramp.

For various reasons, boats, trailers and vehicles sometimes find their way fully immersed as a result of an attempted boat launch. At a launch ramp on the lower Kenai River, I once saw a captain go down with his ship, steadfastly staying at the wheel of his pickup until the water reached his shoulders before getting out and swimming ashore. It just wasn’t his day. His boat, still attached by its bow to the trailer winch, floated high for a few minutes, but then began settling by the stern. He’d forgotten to install the drain plug.

Hang around boat ramps long enough and you’ll see someone back a boat and trailer into the water and then have to stand and watch while the boat floats down the river, looking lonely and unwanted. It happened to me once. Luckily, a nearby boater saw my predicament and took pity. If no one is nearby in a boat, this method of launching can present difficulties.

Quite often you’ll see someone carefully load everything and everyone aboard, shove off from shore, then discover that the motor won’t start. This sometimes happens at Bing’s Landing, just upstream of the Naptowne Rapids, a place many boaters won’t go, even with a motor that’s running. From personal experience, I strongly recommend not pushing off from shore until the motor is running. That said, going through those rapids without power does give you an exciting story to tell your grand-children, if you survive.

Another source of excitement is the “premature launch”: The trailered boat gets halfway to the water before sliding off the trailer onto the concrete ramp, propeller first.

All of these accidents are embarrassing, and some are expensive. They happen when people are careless, when they’re in a hurry, when they’re distracted and when someone offers to help.

Everyone has a “first-time” launch. These are never pretty, but they do offer comic relief. At the other end of the scale, ignorance, discourtesy and a lack of common sense can trigger ramp rage among boaters waiting to launch.

At the peak of the sockeye season, any launch on the Kenai River is a test of endurance. At Bing’s Landing, a gentleman whose IQ couldn’t have been much more than river temperature backed his 40-foot motorhome down the ramp until his boat trailer jackknifed. Ten minutes later, he had it straightened out, but it was still positioned so that no one else could use the ramp. He then proceeded to oh-so-carefully load his boat with fishing and camping gear.

By this time, steam was hissing from the ears of several of us who were waiting to launch, but this guy was oblivious to it. Finally, after dressing his family in warm coats and life jackets and getting them aboard, he backed his trailer into the water and launched his boat. As his motorhome cleared the ramp, several of us cheered and applauded, but he didn’t seem to notice. He probably thought it was a local custom.

People who fish on and around boat ramps don’t make things any easier for boaters. I once had to get out of my vehicle and wade out into the river to tell a man that I had to launch a boat where he was standing. He was so focused on fishing that he would’ve stood there until I backed right over him. The boat backing toward him wasn’t an adequate clue.

At the Izaak Walton boat ramp, in Sterling, you launch in the Moose River, maybe 50 yards from where it flows into the Kenai. When the sockeyes are in, anglers line both banks of the Moose and cast toward the center. Navigating from the boat ramp to the Kenai takes real courage.

With the late run of sockeyes about to arrive, the number of boat launches will soar in the next few days. I urge boat owners to be certain that they, their boats and their vehicles are adequately insured.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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