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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Fast-Acting Fisherman Saves Truck from Boat-Ramp Plunge

Good fishing stories write themselves after you futilely search Madison’s Lake Mendota for suspended walleyes and return instead with 10 trophy bluegills in the 9- to 10-inch range.

But bluegills were just the postscript to the tense tale Joel Ballweg, 65, told his wife Aug. 21 after returning to their home in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. If not for his quick thinking and flawless moves while launching his boat that morning, Ballweg might have ended the day shopping for a new truck, not cleaning a big catch.

When Ballweg arrived at Governor Nelson State Park’s boat ramp around dawn that day, he noticed mats of seaweed washed up on the cement. Still, he’s seen worse clumps and shrugged it off. Besides, he saw a bigger issue when swinging his boat into line with the ramp and checking his rearview mirrors. One of the four tires on his dual-axle boat trailer was flat.

Being a practical guy with a lifetime of experience launching boats, Ballweg knew he could get by temporarily with one flat tire. He decided to launch his 20-foot fiberglass boat, tie it off on the pier, park his rig and change the flat.

He had also assessed the ramp’s slow incline while rolling in, and knew to back in farther than normal to float his heavy boat off the trailer’s bunks. Even so, the boat didn’t slide free when he climbed aboard, fired up the outboard engine and tried backing off. He returned to the truck, backed in as far as he dared, set the parking brake and turned off the engine.

Once back in the boat, which still hadn’t floated off the trailer, Ballweg knew he needed a little rearward thrust. That shouldn’t be a problem, given his boat’s 300-horsepower engine. He put it in reverse and started accelerating, assuming he’d quickly pull free of the trailer.

A glance forward, however, shocked him cold.

“I instantly knew I had a big problem,” Ballweg said. “My truck was sliding down the ramp and heading for the drink. It didn’t look like it would stop anytime soon. I started panicking. What should I do? I didn’t have time to tie off the boat, run up the pier, jump into the truck, start the engine, release the brake and pull out. No one else was at the landing to help, and my truck would soon be under water.”

Those thoughts flashed through Ballweg’s head in milli-seconds, leaving him with one option.

“I put the boat engine into gear and drove forward, trying not punch the bow through my truck’s tailgate and topper,” he said. “Once the bow made contact, I increased the throttle until the truck stopped sliding. Then I held it there with the engine in gear. I heard a big crack at one point, but I think it was just the aluminum plate on my bow-mount trolling motor catching on the topper’s window bracket for a second.”

Ballweg had stalemated the truck in its 10- to 20-second slide, but now what? He was still alone at the ramp. If he put boat engine in neutral or turned it off, the truck would likely resume sliding.

“I knew I had to leave the boat in gear and get back to the truck, so I straightened the engine as best I could so the boat wouldn’t shoot off somewhere,” Ballweg said. “The pier was about 6 feet to the side by then, but I made the jump. I didn’t have a choice.”

As he rushed down the pier, Ballweg noticed his truck’s muffler was well under water, making him wonder if the engine would start. He then waded through knee-deep water to the truck’s front door, pulled it open and climbed in. He fired up the engine, released the parking brake and drove up the ramp with no problem.

“When I looked back, the boat had settled perfectly back onto the trailer as if it were ready to go home,” Ballweg said. “I pulled completely out and then stopped to get control of my blood pressure. I like to think I’m a cool character, but I was physically shaking. It was scary. I didn’t feel like I was in danger of being physically hurt, but I thought my truck would be toast.”

Moments later, as if on cue, another fisherman rolled into the landing, and then another. Ballweg said they couldn’t do much except compare notes and assess what happened. Of course, both anglers said they never use that particular ramp because they’d seen other trucks slide down it.

“We think the weeds at the ramp’s base and algae on the underwater cement made things really slippery,” Ballweg said. “When I put the boat engine in reverse, I must have pulled the truck’s rear tires free of the cement, and they just started sliding like they were on ice. They weren’t rolling.”

After posting his story on Facebook and talking to his truck mechanic, Ballweg learned that most parking brakes only lock the vehicle’s rear wheels. The front wheels still roll freely unless the vehicle has four-wheel-drive and it’s activated to engage the drive train.

“Whenever I launch from now on, I’ll set the parking brake and lock in the four-wheel drive,” Ballweg said. “Most four-wheel drives only lock one side of the front wheels, but three locked wheels is better than none.”

He’s also glad he had four years of experience with his boat’s throttle handle. “Today’s electric throttles are much more sensitive than the hydraulic throttles most of us grew up with,” Ballweg said. “If you hit a wave, it’s easy to slam electric throttles forward if you’re holding their top instead of their base. It takes practice, but I’ve gotten pretty good at babying mine.”

Ballweg remains modest about how he saved his truck and salvaged a good day of fishing, but his actions would have made Admiral Ernest King proud. King, the U.S. chief of naval operations during World War II, famously said: “The mark of a great ship-handler is never getting into situations that require great ship-handling.”

When Ballweg found himself in just such a situation, he proved himself great.

Trucks and cars sometimes slide into the water when algae and wet weeds coat a boat ramp’s cement, making it slippery as ice. To prevent sliding, set the parking brake and engage your vehicle’s four-wheel drive. — Patrick Durkin photo

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