|Following the Folks who Follow the Fish
by Pat Piper
Let's begin with a cold fact: People don't stand around admiring their boat trailers. They will spend hours talking about the 10-cylinder diesel power plant under the hood of their truck, and they are forever singing praises ad nauseam about what the 23-foot Grady White can handle when the Herring Bay winds come from the northeast. But boat trailers?
These weekend workhorses are used primarily by fishermen. Not the cane pole-at-the-pond fishermen but the where-are-they biting?-how deep?-chartreuse-parachute-or-white?-fishermen. In other words, the trailer-boater is a different breed. These are serious folks who travel to the fish by hooking their tow vehicle to a trailer and pulling their boat to the hottest area along the Chesapeake. (Go to the www.worldwideangler.com website and click on Chesapeake Angle, and you'll see what I'm talking about).
Chasing the Fish
Tony Hill of Capitol Heights is one such fisherman.
"The fish in our area migrate," says Hill. "Sometimes they are very far north, and other times they are very far south. So I personally fish the entire length of the Bay.
"Having a trailerable boat that is ready to roll on a moment's notice is very important if you are going to keep up with the latest bite."
Chasing fish is also why Lee Karrh of Centerville has a trailer under his 22-foot Shamrock. "I can take my boat anywhere from the head of the Bay to the Atlantic Ocean in just a couple of hours at most," he says. "From a slip on Kent Island, for example, it could take an entire day on the water just to go around Cape Charles at the mouth of the Chesapeake."
Having a boat on a trailer is a way of life for many serious fishermen, according to boat and trailer salesman Ron Young at Tri-State Marine in Deale. Tri-State sells more than 100 boat-trailer packages every year and as many as 70 separate boat trailers as well. "Fishermen," Young says, "want to explore different waters. With a trailer, they can do just that."
Cheaper by the Trailer
Trailer-boaters claim another advantage to trailers: It's cheaper. "Slips are expensive," Young notes. "You're going to be paying anywhere from $1,200 to $2,000 a year for one." Karrah agrees. "The cost of a trailer is a one-time investment," he says, "while a slip is the gift that keeps on giving."
It's also cheaper to pull a trailer than to drive a boat. Karrah claims "about nine miles per gallon" towing his boat but only two miles per gallon running the boat.
Having a trailer also means you can fill your gas tank at a local dealer of your choice rather than at a marina, where, says Young, "you will pay as much as 30 cents more for a gallon of gas."
Life at the Ramp
Here's another fact: There are more and more trailers on the road now than ever before. Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration doesn't keep records of how many boat trailers are registered because all trailers (farm, utility, motorcycle, horse, etc.) are lumped together. But the National Association of Marine Manufacturers says there are more than seven million boat trailers in the United States, and 100,000 more last year than a year earlier.
Maryland ranks 24th in the number of boats. (Michigan is number 1 but, unlike Maryland, it has the advantage of being a peninsula. It's a geography thing.) With Maryland's 3,190 miles of shoreline and more than 208,000 registered boats, you can take this to the bank: Boat trailer numbers will only grow.
The state of Maryland anticipated the popularity of the trailered boat when it built the huge Sandy Point State Park facility just north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Sandy Point has 22 separate boat ramps, and during peak times in the summer, every lane is being used for launching or loading.
John Peacock, who lives 15 minutes from that ramp in Cape St. Claire, is usually found at Sandy Point - if he isn't on the road to another part of the Bay where the fish are biting. Peacock knows he has to be at the ramp early to avoid the crowds or, as he puts it, "the discourteous or don't-know-any-better boaters."
"My dad was a truck driver, so I think the call of the open road is in my blood," he says. "He could back up any kind of truck by only using mirrors and hit it right on the button on the first try. That's a skill I have yet to develop, but I just love the feel of the trailer behind my pickup. For me, half the fun of trailer boating is the ride to and from the ramp."
It's at the launch ramp where most of the stories about boat trailers - some of which are actually true - are told. This is the standard for all launch ramp stories. It's been repeated in every state, using the name of whatever ramp everyone happens to have visited at the time:
A guy buys a brand new boat and trailer and goes directly to the launch ramp for an afternoon of fishing. He gets the boat in the water, parks the tow vehicle and fires up the engine. A few minutes later, he pushes the throttle forward to see how the boat performs wide open.
As he does, the boater senses something is very wrong because the boat won't get up on plane. He utters the usual four-letter words as he turns around to take the boat back to the dealer and demand they fix the problem or give his money back.
He docks the boat at the launch ramp, walks to his truck and backs it down the boat ramp to load the lemon for the trip back to the dealer. There's a crowd of people looking at the boat as he walks over to get the lines and pull it to the trailer. He tells them "It's a piece of junk. Don't waste your money on it."
That's when one of the spectators says "Are you aware there's a trailer attached to your boat?"
Education is an issue that continues to be debated in the boating industry, in some cases to the point of calling for mandatory instruction - rules of the road, safety procedures, how to dock, how to turn on the engine - for anyone new to boating.
Proponents argue if we insist on classes to drive a car, then we should be doing the same for boats. To this end, a number of boat companies offer a video for new owners, including how to back a trailer straight down a boat ramp and properly launch without holding up people waiting behind you.
Everyone in the boat business suggests that before any new owners take their new purchase to the boat ramp, they first make a stop in a school parking lot and learn to maneuver between plastic cones. In fact, you can see a number of boat trailers being moved around the Edgewater K-Mart parking lot on Sunday mornings. In many dealerships, among them Tri State Marine, new customers are instructed about the operation of boats they buy and, upon request, in trailering techniques and maintenance. But there are trailer and boat salesmen who simply take the money and hand over the keys.
And this is where many boat-trailer stories begin.
Trailer boaters like Tony Hill and friends are serious folks who travel to the fish by hooking to a trailer and pulling their boat to the hottest area along the Chesapeake.
John Peacock has seen it happen at Sandy Point all too often.
"I continue to be amazed at the escapades at the boat ramp," he says. "Double personal-watercraft trailers behind SUVs never seem to be able to back down the ramp without jackknifing the trailer at a 90-degree angle to the SUV."
Peacock is quick to add there are always people to lend a hand when needed. He speaks from personal experience because he does it all the time. He's most active when a big thunderstorm is moving in and someone with a wife and child gets to the ramp in their boat at the very last minute with absolutely no clue. "Helpless," he says, "they are totally helpless."
Since it is scientific fact that opposites attract, this is probably why boat ramps attract the knowing along with the unknowing. It sure ain't survival of the fittest, which is a good thing for all involved.
Fish-chaser Tony Hill has his trailer work down to a science. It comes, he says, with experience.
"I can get my boat off the trailer in less than a minute and out of the water in less than two. I drive my boat onto the trailer, leave it in gear, reach over and hook the cable to the bow, two cranks of the winch handle and I'm done. Tilt the engine, hop out and pull my boat out."
But the stories are seldom about how well something worked or how fast someone launched or loaded their boat. Most involve a complete nitwit who is unable to ask for help despite offers from many well-meaning boaters. They feature people oblivious to the fact that while they load their boat with ice chests or fishing gear - things that should have been done while waiting in line - they are holding up others in line. Or the stories are about ill-fated attempts to back the trailer or launch the boat or load the boat.
One common boat-ramp story involves a truck backing its trailer down the boat ramp to pull a boat out of water. The truck goes a little too far. The emergency brake slips, or the truck comes out of gear. The truck goes into the water, leaving only its antenna showing.
Ron Young tells a true variation on that theme. Somebody else's customer bought a boat and trailer without a clue of how to handle either. He went directly to the boat ramp at Sandy Point. He didn't know the straps holding the boat onto the trailer had to be removed. He figured it made more sense to just back the trailer down the ramp and hit the brake. The boat, he figured, would slide off into the water.
He also wasn't told his vehicle was too light to carry the boat and trailer. So he backs at a high rate of speed down the ramp, hits the brakes - and the boat and the trailer and the tow vehicle go right into the water.
Watching from a nearby pier, his wife could only shake her head.
Still Worse Luck
This, of course, brings us to yet another version of the boat-ramp story.
A fellow backs his trailer too far down a boat ramp, and the trailer wheels actually back over the end of the concrete ramp. His boat is tied to the nearby dock, but nothing is going to happen until the trailer wheels can be gotten back on the ramp.
Of course it's a Saturday afternoon, and there are 10 boats in the water waiting in line.
A fellow watching what has happened offers to jack the trailer frame up high enough to get the wheels in line with the level of the concrete. He does just that, and the boater puts his truck in gear and drives the trailer right out. He gets out, walks over to thank the guy and gets back in the truck. Twenty minutes later while driving down Route 4, he realizes he left his boat at the dock.
But, as the saying goes, the worst day on the water is better than the best day at work.
The fishermen have been out all day. They come in after sunset without having gotten a single bite. They are tired, hungry, frustrated and ready to go home.
The owner of the boat backs his tow vehicle and trailer down the ramp. But because it's pitch black, he doesn't stop where he should. Everything is submerged. He swims out through the open window of the truck and gets back on the pier. The lights of the truck now underwater attract fish. Waiting for a tow truck to arrive, he and his friends catch their limit.
Showing Them How
Of course, there's always somebody for whom the job that baffles strong men is a piece of cake.
A couple from the Eastern Shore bought a Marshall catboat in Baltimore and picked up a trailer at Tri-State Marine in Deale to carry it home. They brought along their friend Gilda Hinman from Parksley, Virginia, who has been moving boats and trailers most of her life in pursuit of fishing hot spots on the Bay or the ocean.
The boat was on a travel lift at the Baltimore marina, and the boatyard guys were in hysterics when they saw the lady get behind the wheel of her tow vehicle to back the trailer under the lift. Bets were taken as to how many times it would take the lady to properly position the trailer before she would ask one of them to do it for her.
Gilda promptly moved the trailer directly under the hanging boat. A lot of money was lost that afternoon in Baltimore.
Stories at the boat ramp are many, but it is the stories away from the ramp that are remembered and talked about for years to come. When Tony Hill, Gilda Hinman, Lee Karrh and John Peacock sit down at the end of the day, the tales they tell are about the fish they've caught and, in some cases, released. Trailer-boaters may see a lot along the way to the ramp or to that favorite fishing spot. But it is the water that is always the goal.
The thing of it is, the journey usually isn't too bad, either.
Where the Ramps Are
Traveling up and down Bay Country trailering that fancy boat might be a boost for the old ego, but with the price of gas at $2 a gallon and climbing daily, it's not the most economical way to find your nearest launching ramp.
To do that, you need to get out your copy of Guide for Cruising Maryland Waters and chart your own course.
You'll find that Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service manages many of the public ramps. Find details at dnr.state.md.us under the heading Boating.
Anne Arundel County public ramps include Sandy Point State Park near the Bay Bridge (410/974-2149) and Truxton Park on Spa Creek in Annapolis (410/263-7958).
If you head south for the day, you'll find public ramps at three Calvert locations: Chesapeake Beach, Hallowing Point and Solomons Island.
Of course, there are many private launching spots, too.
Traveling from north to south in Anne Arundel County, you'll find Fairwinds Marina on the Magothy River (410/974-0758) and Ferry Point Marina at the mouth of Mill and Dividing creeks (410/544-6368). Farther south at the South River, you can launch from Oak Grove Marina (410/266-6696), Pier Seven Marina (410/956-2288) and Turkey Point Marina (410/798-1369).
In Shady Side, try Backyard Boats in (410/867-4800) or in Deale, Deale Marina (301/261-9200).
Travel south on Route 4 and you have a utopia of possible launch sites. For Calvert is a peninsula, surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay on its eastern shore and the Patuxent River on the western side.
Cross the county line into Calvert you can launch into the Bay at Fishing Creek Landings (301/855-3572) or just down the road at Breezy Point Marina (301/855-9894).
Choose the river, you might launch at Bill's boat Rental at Broomes island (410/586-3599) or at the DNR ramp at Hallowing Point 9410/260-8186).
Wanna' stick to chasing those big fish in the Bay, head farther south to Solomons Island and at the base of the Gov. Thomas Johnson Bridge (410/326-8383).
These launching sites should get you started, but there's many more from which to choose.
And if that fancy trailered boat has one of those days when you stay one step behind the fish and you're skunked?
Many of these launching sites are near stores that sell fish.
You have plenty of time to make up a good story while you're trailering the boat home.