Mariner Manners: 12 Bits of Boat Dock Etiquette for a Swift Launch

Mariner Manners: 12 Bits of Boat Dock Etiquette for a Swift Launch

On a busy summer day, a boat launch ramp can become quite congested. For beginner boaters, not only is it intimidating to pull a boat trailer, but it's also daunting to understand the strange dance that goes on at the dock.

Every boater should understand that there are certain boat launch rules of etiquette that go a long way. They prevent something similar to road rage, something boaters like to call ramp rage.

Here are a few pointers to assure smoother launches and efficient loading.

1. Keep Slow Speed and No Wakes

I've seen boaters rev around coves in frustration. Even though most waters will display a "No Wake" buoy, not all are apparent.

Navigational buoys or not, you should always slow down around marinas and launches. It's just common-sense boating.

When arriving and leaving a cove or marina where there's a boat ramp, you need to keep a slow speed out of respect to those currently launching or loading.

2. Know How to Use the Courtesy Dock

Most if not all launch ramps will have a courtesy dock. A courtesy dock is for unloading and loading passengers.

What it is not for is transferring all your baggage, including fishing gear, beverage coolers, cup holders, inflatables, anchors, fenders and other equipment.

Everything you plan to take with your for the day should be already placed in the boat before you even get in line to launch or, alternatively, removed from the boat after you've loaded and pulled aside into the parking lot.

3. Bring a Friend

I highly advise having two people to launch and load a boat: One driver behind the vehicle's steering wheel and the other behind the captain's seat.

After one of you has launched the vessel, the other can park your vehicle and trailer in the marina's designated parking area, then use the courtesy dock to catch their ride.

It also works the other way when loading. After the captain drops off the vehicle driver at the courtesy dock, the boat should pull away from the dock, not remain tied there until the car trailer backs down the ramp. This allows other boaters to drop off their own tow vehicle drivers.

4. Avoid Tying Up at the Courtesy Dock

When you use a courtesy dock, it is exactly that: A courtesy. You never really want to tie up here unless, of course, you find yourself needing to launch and load solo. Again, I don't advise this, but if you know you're on a quiet lake and never have anyone waiting for you, by all means, do it.

5. Know Who Goes First

The common rule is to follow the launch and load by the trailer next in line at the ramp. It doesn't matter if your boat got there first if you don't even see your trailer anywhere in sight.

Before my folks installed a boat lift, they kept their boat and trailer in separate storage places. So, when it was time to leave our weekend lake house on Sundays, my mom and I drove the boat to the public launch facility, which took much less time than it took my dad to pick up the trailer and meet us. We'd always be there waiting for him with plenty of time to spare.

Until you spot your truck and trailer, it's polite to allow other boaters to go first. Again, seems like common sense, but you'd be surprised.

For the most part, anglers and boaters leave their trailers at the ramp facility. In this case, the vessel can simply let out the passenger with the most agile boat trailering skills at the courtesy dock. That way, they can start preparing the trailer and get in line to get the boat. 

6. Find Launches with Multiple Ramps

Most larger launch areas have multiple boat ramp lanes. But this isn't always the case.

Smaller local lakes and even residential community marinas may have only one ramp for use at a time. That's not too bad if you only have a few local boaters using it on any given Saturday morning.

If you're taking your boat into larger bodies of water, seek out marinas offering more than one ramp (or at least ramps wide enough to share). A few places to search for boat launches are BoatU.S., Launching Ramps.com and Discover Boating's marina finder.

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7. Leave Room for More Boaters

Although the boat launch ramp may be wide, it doesn't mean you can hog the road and spread out.

Sometimes the designated ramps are divided in obvious ways with lines as you'd see on roads or parking lots.

Other times, you just need to assume where these lines should be if it's wide enough for two boats. Maneuver your boat trailer to be the tightest it can be to the ramp's edge.

8. Be Prepared or Move Aside

If you're not fully prepared, pull aside and allow other boaters the chance to launch.

Don't just line up to the ramp only to twiddle your thumbs while waiting for a family member to come back from the marina bathroom.

You'd be surprised how many boaters do that. Dewinterization steps are important also, especially when it comes to your vessel's power steering. Don't find yourself launched and unable to turn your wheel to putter out of another boater's way.

Take the steps to ensure your steering works before getting in the water. You may need to invest in steering tube brushes (check price on Amazon). This brings me to the next etiquette rule.

9. Be Productive on Stand By

It might be obvious to some, but don't get in line at the ramp if you're not 100% ready to launch. And don't think you can just take care of it while you're bobbing out in the cove, either. Either way, you're taking up space. 

10. Gather Gear and Accessories Prior

Again, if you're not 100% ready to launch, don't even get in line.

Pull aside in the parking lot. Usually, launches have large enough lots to do so and prepare everything you need first. This not only keeps you from delaying those in line behind you, but assures that you aren't rushed.

In turn, these will make you likely to forget something that you need for the day (like your wallet and driver's license) back in your car.

Prepare your boat ahead of time. Gather accessories, coolers, towables, beach bags, camping supplies and anything you plan to take. Place these items in the boat prior to launching (as in while the boat's still attached to the trailer). You need to remove the straps before launching anyway, so do all of your loading at that time. Don't do this while your boat is half in the water. Removing tie-down straps at this point will hold you up and get your feet wet.

I've witnessed families with new boats launch and then pull up to the courtesy dock to load. It might be okay to do this if you have a bad back injury and can't lift a really heavy cooler over the boat's side from land. All I'm saying is you shouldn't use the dock for too long.

If you're an angler, attach those chartplotters, fishfinders and GPS units before your boat even touches that water. Don't launch your boat and take up space in the cove as you fidget with wires or get new nav maps loaded.

Allow as much room in the cove as possible for others waiting for their loading trailer. Then, get the heck out of there. Besides, why waste good gas idling when you can be having fun water skiing instead?

11. Socialize on the Sidelines

Sometimes we cross paths with an old friend. Especially on small lakes, we happen to stumble upon long-lost fishing buddies and neighbors.

Don't chit-chat or catch up on your entire past year or your whole life, for that matter standing right at the ramp.

There are plenty of ways to socialize with your best buds once you're actually on the water. And don't even think of stopping to take your family photos in the spot where everyone else is getting ready to launch.

12. Watch Your Lights

Turn off vehicle headlights

Backing your trailer and boat into the water requires your vehicle's mirrors. In fact, you heavily depend on them to see how aligned you are to other boaters and even, let's say, to avoid the courtesy dock. You need as much visibility as possible. This is especially true in the pre-dawn hours when it's still dark out.

But sometimes, after getting an early start and driving with their lights on in the dark of those pre-dawn hours, a boater might return to the dock and forget to switch their headlights off. At facilities with multiple launching ramps, this makes loading and launching very difficult. If you or someone else forgets to turn off their headlights, they're going to blind the boaters who are still trying to back their boats in the water.

Turn on trailer navigation lights

Turning on your navigation lights is for everyone's safety. In pre-dawn hours, the light is low and sometimes there's even a fog lifting from the waters.

Obviously, you need to have your navigation lights turned on. Pre-dawn hours bring fog and low lighting conditions.

Nav lights aren't only for nighttime navigation safety. They work well in pre-dawn conditions, where there's limited visibility.

Launch coves can get crowded very quickly. It's best to keep nav lights on to prevent hitting another boat while waiting for your trailer to arrive.

Start Practicing Good Boat Dock Etiquette

If you can, time yourself the next time you're putting your boat in the water.

The first couple of times, don't feel pressured by grumbles, sighs or even car horns. You'll only rush and be annoyed you forgot something later on.

The key thing is to just see if there are ways you can cut down on your loading and unloading time.

Obviously, loading a boat is more difficult with waves rocking you about, but that will only get better with practice. As will reversing your vehicle with a boat trailer behind, all while keeping it straight.

Overall, remember boat launch etiquette can go both ways. Just as you don't want to feel rushed by car horns and tapping feet, don't be the person that does it to someone new.

You obviously know they're beginners, so instead of being rude, go lend a hand! Ask if they need assistance and help a fellow boater out. You never know, next time you two might end up being the Chatty Cathys holding up the line.