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This article first appeared in  Practical Boat Owner.

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 convention. 

 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 it run. 

 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.

 Top Tips.

  1. Plan ahead.  Choose a slipway carefully, plan for tides and phone ahead if possible.
  2. Take your time at the slipway.  Park up and have a good look around.  Make sure everyone understands whatís going on.
  3. Get everything ready to go to sea BEFORE you reverse down the ramp. 
  4. Practice reversing somewhere quiet before you first launch.
  5. If the slipway is very slippery, use a long rope attached to the car.
  6. Check your engine is working before you launch.
  7. Use a launch method that is safe and works for your boat and trailer.
  8. If a winch handle spins out of control, NEVER try to catch it.
  9. Avoid recovering in a cross-current.  If you have to, drift downstream onto the trailer and keep the boat aligned with the trailer. 

 Geoff Campbell is Managing Director of 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. 

Author: Geoff Campbell
Contact: www.boatlaunch.co.uk

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