Successful launch and recovery
makes for a great day out. Geoffrey Campbell.
Many would-be trailer boaters
are put off by the potential difficulties of
launching and recovering a boat, their fears no
doubt reinforced by watching some poor soul make a
complete hash of putting his boat in the water in
front of an appreciative crowd around the slipway.
However launching and recovering does not have to be
a stressful experience. The following tips will
ensure a smooth start and finish to your day.
The first tip is to plan ahead.
The slipway is your start and finish point of your
journey and therefore needs to be just as much of
your passage plan as any other part of the journey.
First of all make sure that the slipway is suitable
for your boat. Log onto Ė
www.boatlaunch.co.uk or get a copy of The Good
Launch Guide 2004 to check the details of slipways
in and around the UK. Slipway suitability is more
than checking that your trailer will fit on the
ramp. Many slipways can only be used at certain
states of tide so make sure that the tide will be
high enough for when you intend to launch (and
recover). Is there secure overnight parking at the
slipway if you are planning an overnight journey on
your boat? Trailers make easy targets for thieves
and itís very difficult to recover your boat without
one. It is a good idea to phone ahead if possible.
You donít want to drive hours to discover that your
chosen slipway is a Regatta Control Centre for the
day or, worse still, the venue for a Jetski
When you get to the slipway,
park up out of the way and take a look around, donít
be in a rush to get into the water. This will give
the trailer wheel bearings a chance to cool down
before going in the cold water. If not, the
contraction of the warm air in the bearings will
suck salt water deep into the bearings and cause
serious long term damage. I always check the wheels
on the trailer whenever we stop the car and if I
have been using the brakes a lot, they can be hot to
the touch. Now is a good time to sort our who will
do what and where you are going to park the car and
trailer and how will the person parking the car and
trailer get onto the boat. Walk over to the slipway
and have a look around. If someone else is
launching, go down and have a look, you may pick up
some useful tips. Walk down the slipway to check if
its slippery or muddy and you may wish to wade in a
way to check for potholes, rocks, old bikes and
trolleys. Talk to the harbourmaster if available,
pay any charges due and get all the local advice
that you can. Some slipways offer assisted launches
where a tractor will launch your boat for you. This
is well worth taking advantage of when launching
across sand or shingle beaches that can bog down the
toughest four wheel drive cars.
Get everything ready before you
get onto the ramp. Take off the trailer board and
prop bag. Remove safety straps off the rear of the
boat if you use them. Take the outboard off the tilt
support lever. Put all your gear into the boat, put
the keys in the ignition and the kill cord in
place. Check fuel and oil if necessary and prime
the fuel pump, check the GPS and radio. In short,
you should be ready to go to sea before you put your
boat onto the ramp. One last check that everything
is ready and only then head off to the ramp.
Reversing a trailer down the
ramp is not something you can learn about in books,
you just have to try it, but donít let a crowded
ramp on a Sunday morning be your practice ground.
Try reversing in an empty car park or driveway. If
you have an off-road vehicle with low ratio, this is
a good time to use it. Going slowly and not having
to slip the clutch makes life a lot easier.
Some slipways are just too
slippery and steep to risk taking a car onto. I
will never forget the experience as my Land Rover
Discovery, trailer and boat slid gently down the
slipway at Helensburgh with all four wheels locked.
Cars have been lost in this way. The heart-stopping
solution was to release the brakes until the wheels
started to turn and then very gently re-apply them.
To avoid this nerve racking experience in these
slippery circumstances, lower your trailer down the
ramp by means of a long rope attached to the car so
that your vehicle stays well above the slime. Be
careful when unhitching a trailer near the top of a
ramp. I saw the result of a RIB that had careered
out of control down a slipway and rammed a concrete
post. The engine was a right off, the boat was
badly damaged and they were very lucky that no one
was injured. When using a length of rope between
the car and trailer, the person at the trailer will
not be able to see the person in the car and to
avoid a lot of shouting and confusion a couple of
cheap walkie-talkies can be very handy. Most
slipways will not require the use of a rope,
especially if you have a four wheel drive car, but
it is a useful trick to know, especially if
launching or recovering at low tide.
Reverse the trailer until the
transom is in the water and, if are a power-boater,
lower your engine and get it started. If there are
any problems with the engine you can abort your trip
without having to get your boat back onto the
trailer. Assuming the engine is running fine,
switch off and bring the engine back up. That way,
if there are any unseen obstructions in the water
you wonít damage your engine when you launch.
Now you should be ready to
launch and there are as many different ways to get a
boat off a trailer as there are trailer boaters.
The important thing is to use a method that is safe
and that you feel comfortable with. What follows
are methods that have worked well for me over the
years launching a variety of boats off different
trailers and the details will change for different
boats and different trailers.
If you have a roller trailer, it
should be possible to roll your boat off the trailer
into the water, keeping your precious trailer wheel
bearings out of the water. When launching into a
harbour or lake where there is no cross-current, my
preferred method is to reverse the trailer until the
trailer wheel hubs are just above the water. I
attach one end of an 8 metre rope to the bow of the
boat and the other end to the trailer with the slack
neatly coiled in the boat. I then undo all the
straps holding the boat onto the trailer. Our boat
is a 6 metre, one tonne RIB and putting your
shoulder under the bow and pushing up causes the
boat to gently slide off the trailer into the
water. And since we remembered to tie the boat to
the trailer you can pull the boat back to the ramp
and climb aboard.
If you are launching into a
cross-current or on a steep ramp, you may want to
use a more controlled approach and lower your boat
into the water by means of the trailer winch. In
this case, keep the boat attached to the trailer
winch and with one person pushing, the other can
lower the boat on the winch. Once the boat is in
the water, but being held with the winch, one person
can get aboard, get the engine going and be ready to
go. However, be extremely careful when using the
trailer winch. If you lose your grip on the handle
and it starts to spin, DO NOT try to catch it. You
will not be able to stop it and more likely than
not, you will end up with a broken wrist. Just let
If your trailer does not have
rollers, but has carpet bunk pads instead, a
different technique is required. Get everything
ready as before and take off all the trailer straps
and either attach a long rope between boat and
trailer or put someone in the boat. Then, starting
with the trailer wheels just in the water, smartly
reverse the car and trailer until the rear of the
car is at the waterís edge and hit the brakes. Your
boat should glide off the trailer. If not, it is
probably still attached to the trailer. You wonít
believe how many people attempt to launch a boat
while it is still strapped onto the trailer!
To recover the boat, you have to
put someone ashore to get the car and trailer. Many
slipways do not have the luxury of a pontoon and a
walkie-talkie to keep contact between the car and
the boat is useful if you are hanging around in the
boat wondering where on earth the car has got to.
For a roller style trailer, reverse the trailer
until the trailer wheels hubs are just above the
water and slowly drive the boat up to the trailer
and, with the engine ticking over in forward gear,
clip the trailer winch strop onto the boat. Turn
the engine off and winch the boat onto the trailer.
With a carpet type trailer, put the trailer deeper
into the water and drive the boat onto the trailer.
You may want to experiment with the best speed for
your approach, but I have found that a couple of
knots above tick-over speed is best for getting the
boat onto a carpet style trailer. As soon as you
have got the boat onto the trailer, attach a safety
line in case the winch strop breaks. We use a
length of chain with a snap shackle. Boats have
rolled off the back of trailers as they are pulled
up the ramp causing damage and injury. Park up away
from the ramp and get your boat and trailer ready
for the road.
If you are using a slipway in a
river you may have to recover your boat in a
cross-current which can make life difficult as your
boat will be swept sideways over the trailer. Try
and avoid this if possible by timing your recovery
at slack tide. If you have to recover in a cross
current, the trick is to start your approach
upstream of the trailer. Drift down towards the
trailer with your boat aligned with the trailer and
control your approach with the throttle. If you get
it right you will arrive at the trailer and be
in-line with the trailer so that you can just drive
onto it. If not, reverse out and try again. Avoid
the temptation to approach the trailer with the boat
pointing upstream to counteract the effect of the
current. When you get to the trailer you find that
the boat is pointing in a different direction to the
trailer, it wonít go on and you end up with
expensive scratch marks on your gel coat and lots of
shouting, much to the amusement of the crowd that
will have gathered to watch.
Follow these tips and you should
have a great day out. See you on the slipway.
Plan ahead. Choose a slipway
carefully, plan for tides and phone ahead if
Take your time at the slipway.
Park up and have a good look around. Make sure
everyone understands whatís going on.
Get everything ready to go to
sea BEFORE you reverse down the ramp.
Practice reversing somewhere
quiet before you first launch.
If the slipway is very
slippery, use a long rope attached to the car.
Check your engine is working
before you launch.
Use a launch method that is
safe and works for your boat and trailer.
If a winch handle spins out of
control, NEVER try to catch it.
Avoid recovering in a
cross-current. If you have to, drift downstream
onto the trailer and keep the boat aligned with
Geoff Campbell is Managing
www.boatlaunch.co.uk , the online boating
resource with comprehensive and detailed listing of
slipways and marinas in and around the UK. He is
also editor of the Good Launch Guide, the UKís
number one slipway directory.