Adapting with Age: How to Load and Launch Your Small Boat by Yourself

8-minute read
By: Mike Schmidt

Time on the water is special. Even as we age, the yearning to be on open water doesn’t fade, but the thought of transporting boats and gear can be daunting and intimidating. You may think to yourself, “What happened to all of that strength, flexibility and mobility?” Many aging boaters also feel this way, and, unfortunately, they decide to stay home. Less mobility and concerns about safety can be reasons people choose to let go of the cherished days on the water.

Aging doesn’t have to slow you down or stop your days of enjoying a boat trip, either solo or with your friends and family. The key is to find ways to continue doing what you love without compromising health, safety, or comfort.

Mike Schmidt is an avid rower/paddler, even at 80-years-old! He offers his tips and tricks on how he has adapted to loading, transporting, and launching his boats by himself over the years. From changing boats and vehicles, to jerry-rigging a horse rope to aid in entering and exiting the boat, Mike has adapted how he does things to fit his physical capabilities as he ages...and he's stayed on the water and in the game.

The Barbara I: A Long Boat & a Pick-Up Truck

I wanted a self-propelled boat to be part of my retirement. I envisioned a boat with all-around capabilities to take full advantage of my new found time: row it alone on a breath-taking, early morning, take my wife Barbara for an evening of birdwatching, load up rambunctious grandkids on a Saturday, or maybe even a paddle with my golden retriever on board. An Adirondack guide boat from the Adirondack Guide Boat Company (AGB) in Vermont checked all these boxes.

I named it the Barbara I and it was a classic: blue Kevlar hull, cherry wood gunnels and decks, woven up-right seats, and equipped with 7 ft, furniture grade maple and cherry oars. It was heavy at 68lbs, and rather long at 16 ft, but I was a younger retiree and strong enough to handle it. Plus, we owned a horse-hauling pick-up truck.

The loading was reasonably easy: just lift the bow onto the tailgate of the bed (lifting approximately half the weight) and slide it in. I could do it alone, but with a bit of a grunt since the truck bed was high. Only about six feet hung out over the bed when all was said and done. I put a red flag on the end. My good times in the boat confirmed that rowing was going to be a part of my/our lives for a long time – at least as long as I could (and would) adapt. Hopefully that would be a long time.

The Barbara II: A Big Boat & a Big SUV

With time, came some knee issues and the need for a more stable boat for my in-and-out maneuvers. As fate sometimes plays right, in the showroom of the AGB company sat what they called a Fishing Dory. What luck and what a boat! It came complete with dark green exterior, rush seats, longer maple and cherry oars, a bit shorter in length (14 ft) and a significantly wider 44” beam for stability. And, it could hold upwards of 700lbs, so that meant multiple grandkids and the dog!

Mike's Grandkids in the Fishing Dory

Mike's grandkids enjoying time out on the water in the AGB Fishing Dory

But the Dory (now appropriately named the Barbara II) was also a significantly heavier boat at 80lbs. Handling, loading, and launching a boat this heavy posed real concerns. How could I, alone, tussle and load a long, 80-pound boat, especially since we no longer hauled horses and had sold our gas-guzzling truck? Well, I researched the SUV marketplace with two buy-factors in mind: a rear width wide enough for the Barbara II and maximum cargo space.  A Buick Enclave fit the bill and turned out to be great.

Being lower than the truck, I now had to lift the boat just a few feet into the rear deck of the car, but now the length of the boat left way too much extending. More online research led me to a host of bed extenders. These are nifty – and pretty inexpensive – (~$70) devices. A 4 ft stout metal bar slips into the trailer hitch on the rear of the car and into it connects an upright bar system that looks like a goal post, extending the bed of the car. The system disassembles easily and can be stored in a car trunk.

bed extender

Mike's bed extender

Now I just lifted the boat onto the device, slid it in with the back seats folded down, clipped stay lines from the brass rings on the bow of the boat to tie-down hooks in the car, and put the old red flag on the stern. As for the rear hatch? I just pulled it down and clipped it partially closed to just over the gunnels equating to low resistance and little wind blowing in. My transport problems with this larger boat were solved! This was a secure and stable load, even at 70 mph. Most importantly, I could continue to load and unload by myself. (Note: This bigger guide boat was a bit more difficult to handle, so my car-to-water launch time increased to about 4 minutes.)

Enclave and the Fishing Dory

The Fishing Dory loaded into the Enclave with the bed extender attached

The AGB Fishing Dory’s size, weight and breadth did give me the improved stability I needed getting in and out. It was easy to row and maneuver, took wind and waves well, and proved to be a good partner – giving me “handle anything” confidence on the water. Even the grandkids rowed it!

The Barbara III: A Small Boat & an Electric Car

As time moved on, so naturally did my body. Hefting the Barbara II became more difficult. How could I still maintain my loading/unloading independence with my physical capabilities lessening? Additionally, as the grandkids now had other activities that took their time away from our paddling together, did I really need a large capacity boat anymore? More worldly concerns like climate change begged the question: Should we "go green" with an electric car? These life changes and questions hatched my latest proposal: Would a lighter and smaller boat make everything easier? Might I really keep going and rowing forever? Once again, back to AGB’s website and there was the right boat for me now: the Solo Pack Boat.

The Solo Pack Boat is built with the same basic design and craftsmanship of my original Adirondack guide boat, but scaled down in length (12 ft), width (36”) and weight (34lbs) so that people can handle the boat more easily. This decision to change boats was easy for me and has turned out to be the best choice for my aging body and new priorities.

Pack Boat ready for a Florida launch

The AGB Pack Boat ashore with a visitor perched on its frame

Since my goal was a lighter and smaller boat for a smaller car, the Pack has met that well. It fits in the rear of our new, electric Tesla Y with beam-inches to spare. And, there’s no need for a trailer hitch extension to support the boat during trips to sites. (In fact, I believe I could hoist the Pack to the top of the car if I had to!) 

Tesla Y loaded with the Pack Boat

The Pack Boat loaded into the Tesla Y

My second goal was easier handling in and out of the car and into the water. Again, a score for the Pack. My loading time from garage floor to the car is definitely under 3 minutes and I can launch in about 2 minutes. (Note: I realize this timing thing is pretty “Type A compulsive”, so I’ve now stopped counting, except when I row on Wednesdays.) 

Won’t Trailers Haul Any Boat?

There are many trailers to choose from and many designed especially for small boats like kayaks, canoes and Adirondack Guide boats: light in weight and easily hauled behind any car or even a bicycle. But for me, the need to cover and store a trailer somewhere, put the hitch on the car, hitch up the trailer, and then back it in and maneuver in tight places is an unneeded hassle. And, I’ve seen it happen too often: if too much angst and exertion is needed to load, transport and launch with ease and confidence, it can be enough to make any boater a reluctant boater.


And so here I am, an Octogenarian now, still able to do what I love and paddle where I want to, when I want to. I credit a light-weight rowing boat from AGB Company, a beautiful light-weight kayak paddle from Bending Branches, and the loading-hauling-launching changes I’ve made over the years.

As my dad once said to me when he turned 90, “To keep going boy, it’s all about adapting.” And so, I have and I am…thanks, Dad.

P.S.  One more “adapting” item: I’ve clipped a horse halter rope, (with multiple knots tied in it) to the bow of my boat. To ease my getting up out of the boat, I use the rope to pull up and get a lift. This works well for me, and lessens the awkwardness and angst on my knee. (Note: get one for $12 at Tractor supply…many colors. The rope that is, not the knee!).

Mike using his rope to get in and out of the boat with ease

Mike using his rope attachment to get in and out of his boat

About the AuthorMike Schmidt headshot hold the Navigator paddle over his shoulder

Mike Schmidt lives an active life in the small town of New Smyrna Beach, Florida, near the mouth of the Indian River where it opens into the Atlantic. He rows and kayak paddles his guideboat on lagoons, mangrove backwaters and streams, with birds and dolphins for company. In the spring, he and his wife move to the hills of Vermont to live in an old log cabin, surrounded by forest and overlooking a small trout pond. He rows Lake Champlain, and its surrounding rivers and reservoirs and when not rowing, does sport shooting with a recurve bow and a shotgun, rides his bike, plays the guitar, works at playing golf, and spends time with his grandkids.

(All photos courtesy of Mike Schmidt)

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