The launch ramp follies

July 2006

By Randy Randall
For Points East

‘Hold the rope, Honey. Hold onto the rope!” The husband was issuing instructions to his wife as he got ready to launch their boat. It was a fairly large Wellcraft, maybe 23 feet or so, and he had entrusted Honey with the bow line.

Husband backed down the launching ramp and jumped on his brakes. The big Wellcraft slid smoothly into the water and the inertia carried it right past the docks. But the boat didn’t slow. There was no snubbing or pulling into the dockside. Honey had not held onto the rope as instructed, and the boat was about to sail on its own out into the river.

Honey made a quick grab for the bow rail just as the boat glided past the end of the dock and hung grimly on. But the petite 90-pound lightweight was no match for the 4,000-pound boat, and it began to tug her off the dock. I flung my arms around her waist and pulled backwards.

“Let go,” I said. “Let go!”

She did, thank God, and we both avoided a dunking in the Saco River.

“The boat…” she sputtered.

“Oh we’ll get it with the skiff,” I said.” No harm done.”

Running a busy marina during the summer, even a small one like ours, Marston’s Marina in Saco, is pretty much a three-ring circus. All boatyard operators and marina dockmasters know this. If it’s not one thing it’s another. Problems like equipment breakdowns, parts that didn’t show up, double booking for a slip, a minor oil spill, the launch motor acting up, and the launch driver off taking a short vacation with her boyfriend all make up a day’s frustrations.

But if we’re the ringmasters of this circus, then the launching ramp has to be the center ring, because that’s where the most thrilling acts perform for the public.

Many times friends and customers have told us, “You guys should write a book about your experiences.”

Well, I’m sure we’ve got enough material. It’s just too bad we never kept a daily log, but we do have many stories, some of which have assumed the stature of marina legends as they’ve been recounted over the years, and a few really surprising instances we’ve experienced personally.

Backing up always seems to be good for some really memorable scenes. There are people who just seem to know how, guys and girls who can wheel a Ford 250 Super Duty around with a four-wheel trailer behind and put the trailer and the Sea Ray on it right where they want, all with the slightest amount of fuss and effort. Sometimes when we’re sitting on the curb and someone does a perfect job we’ll applaud, especially if it’s a woman driving.

Other times though things just seem to become impossible, as they did with Honey and her hubby. We’ve seen husbands and wives yell and scream at each other as one tries to guide the other when they’re backing their boat trailer. The language they use will turn the air blue.

We do try to help. Usually at about the third jackknife one of our guys will walk over and offer assistance.

“Hey,” he’ll say, “can I give you hand? I’m kind of familiar with the ramp.”

Then, if they’ll let him, he’ll get in the truck, back the trailer down to the water’s edge, set the parking brake and jump down from the cab to receive a $5 tip. Of course we don’t encourage the tipping. Helping our customers is all part of our service. But sometimes the wives or girlfriends manage to slip a fiver our way just as a sort of thank you.

Any marina you visit will be able to tell tales about launching without the drain plug installed. One season this happened so many times we put up a sign right beside the ramp that said, “HEY SAILOR, IS YOUR PLUG IN?”

It’s amazing how often the drain plug gets left out, especially on the first outing of the summer. If they’re lucky, they’ll notice it right away and keep the boat on the trailer, pull it up on the ramp, let the water drain and secure the plug as it should be. Sometimes, if there’s a floor or deck, the incoming water goes unnoticed until they’re part way to the ocean. Usually the first sign of trouble is water sloshing up onto the floor, or the boat won’t come up onto plane. Again people can be lucky and find the plug and stuff it into the hole by reaching down through the water in the bilge.

A typical scenario is for a season-long customer to launch his boat and then motor around to his slip, where he’ll begin loading all the equipment for the summer. That’s when he’ll notice water creeping over the floor boards. If they can’t reach the plug, and with many of the new bigger designs they can’t, it becomes a mad scramble to get the trailer, back it down the launching ramp and bring the boat around once more to haul it out before it sinks.

But the extra water in the hull has made the boat so heavy it’s next to impossible to pull onto the trailer. Things can become quite panicky until the boat is floated safely onto the trailer and the family SUV has strained to haul it up the ramp. Then they park in the middle of the road and all stand around while half the Saco River gushes out of their boat onto the pavement.

Oh yes, we’ve seen it all, I think, in the course of half a century — sinking boats, sinking cars, trucks stuck in the mud and boats sliding off trailers. That last one was a surprise. A 25-foot sailboat was being hauled out and the novice owners had not bothered to secure any lines from the boat to the trailer. No bow line or stern lines. No winch cable or safety chain.

When the truck spun its wheels and began to slip backwards, the driver slammed on the brakes and the loose boat just kept right on sliding off the trailer and onto the asphalt. Good grief. For that one we had to call a wrecker. The mechanic managed to drag the boat back up onto the trailer by pulling with the crane and sliding the boat on planks.

Car sinkings used to occur about once every five years or so. The simplest was when the over-eager boaters would back down the ramp and then pile out of the car to attend their boat and find out they’d left the car in neutral with no parking brake set. They’d just about get back to their boat when they’d notice the trailer still moving ever so slowly backwards. Then they’d see the car also rolling toward the water and make a mad dash to jump into the driver’s seat and stop the impending tragedy.

Sometimes they made it.

Other times things went in reverse and the incoming tide just swallowed the car. Two men showed up all excited to go striper fishing and hurriedly launched their outboard boat and took off. No one thought anything about it until an hour or so later when someone chanced to walk by the launching ramp and saw their car still parked there with the incoming tide lapping against the rear window.

One of our guys was able to wade to the front door, climb in and start the car with the keys that had been left in the ignition and drive the whole rig dripping wet up to the parking lot. When we finally caught up with the absent-minded fishermen it was all too obvious that they were intent on celebrating their day afloat with plenty of punch. The celebrating evidently had begun a long time before they ever got to our place.

And then there are the people who can’t seem to stay on the pavement and so end up getting stuck in the mud. This happened once to a gentleman who had managed to get his Oldsmobile, boat and trailer all stuck in the mud at low tide. There was a real sense of urgency in getting him up on dry land before the incoming tide overtook him.

He said he’d waive any insurance claims, so we fired up the old winch truck, backed it into position and choked the rear wheels with cement blocks. This ancient piece of machinery was acquired many years ago from the telephone company. We needed it for the massive chain drive winch that sat right behind the cab. We threw the winch out of gear and passed the cable hook to the boat owner.

“Here,” we said, “run this down and find a good place to hook to the car.”

He did, and in a few minutes waved to us to start pulling. We engaged the winch lever and the power takeoff and let out the clutch. The chain spun and the winch drum began to take up the slack. Foot by foot, the cable crawled over the bed of the truck as it wound around the drum. The winch just kept turning, steadily winding up the cable and ripping the front bumper completely off the Olds!

“Whoa! Stop! Stop!” we yelled.

The embarrassed customer pushed his twisted bumper aside, leaned down under the car and hooked the winch cable onto the car’s frame. This time nothing let go and we pulled the guy’s car, boat and trailer all back onto the dry launching ramp.

Our friends are right — we should write a book. But not right now. We have too much stuff to do around our marinas and boatyards — like watching the circus at the docks.