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When Boat Launches Go Horribly Wrong – A Tale Of Tragedy

I have never shared this story publically of the boat launch tragedy until now. If you are a boat owner or ever intend to be, you need to read this tragic story I’m about to share.

It all began on a bright summer morning about twenty years ago. I was living in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, at the time. A buddy of mine from work (Steve) had invited me to go out on his small fishing boat on Lake Bellwood if memory serves. As you’ll read, it wasn’t the lake that stuck in my memory.

On Our Way To The Boat Launch

We jumped into his Jeep Cherokee with our fishing gear and his gorgeous white American Eskimo dog. We drove to the lake and patiently sat by a picnic bench. There was some time to waste as we had to wait for the people ahead of us to use the boat launch.

As we waited, our turn approached. And we were watching as the person in front of us in line made their way to the ramp. They were three generations of Italian: a young boy, maybe 12 years old, his father, whom I would have guessed was in his forties, and his father, who appeared to be in his late 70s.

What caught our eye about these two men and boy was that the middle-aged man was quite loud. And quite matter-of-fact about how to do things. He kept barking orders to his son and father as he lined up his big truck and bowrider to the boat ramp.

The truck backed up to the ramp’s top, with his boat on the trailer on the angled ramp. At this point, he stopped his truck and started yelling at his father to help. Naturally, both my friend Steve and I were mildly annoyed at the middle-generation man’s seeming ignorance as he barked orders at his family (it seemed pretty rude). But that was not the worst of the situation.

Launching A Boat The Wrong Way

One of the things the seemingly frustrated man decided to do was to untie the ropes securing his boat to the trailer. Remember, the boat was on the trailer, on the semi-steep boat launch ramp, and not yet touching the water.

My buddy Steve pointed out the man’s actions to me. We decided to move closer to investigate and possibly lend a hand before things went wrong.

When we arrived, the middle generation man was finishing untying the bow rope. This was the last securing point of the boat to trailer. Steve immediately called over to the man and told him not to undo the cord yet. Not until the boat was partially in the water, at least. The man refused and yelled at us, saying he knew what he was doing.

We again attempted to communicate with him and advise him that what he was doing was dangerous. He also told us to mind our business. Next, the man handed the rope (still tied to the boat’s bow) to his 70 something father. And he asked him to hold on tight to the rope. We again advised against this and were also told to leave well enough alone.

The ignorant man then jumped back in his; I believe it was a large black Dodge Ram pickup and moved it quickly down the ramp. During this time, it appeared that the older fellow, fearing the boat would ‘take off,’ wrapped the rope around his hand to hold it tighter. We yelled immediately to let go of the rope. A boat launch tragedy seemed imminent.

The boat and trailer hit the water on the typical angle of boat launch ramps. Can you guess what happened? The boat took off from the momentum and gravity. The rope yanked the older gentleman, who then had no choice but to let go. Unfortunately, his balance was not very good.

Tragedy Strikes At The Boat Launch

Like so many concrete boat ramps, the sides of the ramp were basically concrete walls. They extended about 3 feet off the ground. When the older man lost his balance, he fell backward and hit his head on the edge of the concrete wall.

Steve and I jumped into action. The boat was about 100 feet out now, by itself floating away. The man who had struck his head lay on the ground, eyes rolling back and going into convulsions. I did my best to prevent his head from hitting and smacking around on the concrete pad as Steve ran to call 911. The older mans lips started turning blue and blood was tearing up his eyes.

We told the middle-aged man to remove himself and his son (who was standing watching in horror) from the situation. The middle-aged man was having the worst kind of panic attack, and it wasn’t helping. He then ran over and started trying to pour water into his father’s mouth. I tried to stop him, but it was too late. His father started drowning in the water as he was unable to cough it out. By this time, his eyes were rolled back, and his face turned bluish purple.

I could see by the blood pooling under the skin at the back of his head and the rapidly spreading purple color of his skin that he had experienced severe trauma to the back of his head. He was pronounced dead by the ambulance attendants, who arrived shortly after.

Haunting Horror Of Mistakes

This memory of a boat launch tragedy has haunted me for twenty years. Every time I go out boating, I remember. I remember the look on the older man’s face as his life left him behind. I remember the look of horror on the young boy’s face. He obviously had never seen anything so traumatic in his entire life.

It haunts me to this day.”

Jeremy Shantz

All I can say now is that I wish all of you the safety boating adventures. And I ask that you follow all safety practices. It could literally save your life or the life of someone you love.

And for God’s sake, if a stranger warns you that you are doing something dangerous, please listen. People will generally try to help – don’t shut them out. Always listen and be humble. As this story teaches us, when you think you know better, you often don’t. When you are flustered, you make poor decisions.

Stay calm. Stay safe. Be kind.

And never untie the bow of a boat on a trailer until it has reached the water safely. Unless you have someone in the boat itself to guide it.

More From Boating Guide

For more information about launching boats, take a look at the video at boaterexam here.

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