How to ramp up your boat trailering skills for a perfect put-in

Updated: April 25, 2019

Car tows a boat on a trailer on the highway Chang-Min Ok/shutterstock

Everyone who’s ever trailered a boat has an embarrassing story to tell. Just Google “boat launch fails” to see the type of chaos you can get when you mix lack of experience or carelessness with thousands of dollars of equipment, moving parts, and asphalt. Launching can be an intimidating exercise, especially at a public ramp. Whether it’s your first time or not, here are some tips for a launch that’s all smooth sailing.

Hooking up

First, make sure that your vehicle is up to the task at hand. If you’re going to be trailering your boat on steep gravel roads or using a slippery ramp, your best bet is a vehicle with four-wheel drive. On that note, if you’re buying a new vehicle, consider getting the factory tow package, which will include a hitch, a wiring harness, a beefed up engine and transmission cooling, and even optional features such as sway control and back-up assist. Consult your vehicle’s manual to ensure that the boat doesn’t exceed the towing capacity and that you have the right size and class of hitch. You also need to stay below the gross combined-vehicle rating, which is the total weight of the trailer, the boat, the vehicle, and any passengers and gear. Once you’ve got your insurance and licences sorted, it’s time to get comfortable hooking the trailer up correctly and safely.

Here’s how to do it right:

Step 1: Align the trailer hitch and the ball, and then lower the trailer hitch down onto the ball. Close the latch, and insert the safety or cotter pin, or use a padlock. This is important because the hitch can pop off the ball if you hit a big bump.

Step 2: Cross the trailer’s safety chains, and attach them to your tow vehicle. The chains should always be crossed because, if the trailer pops off and the front end drops, the chains will act as a cradle for the tongue so it doesn’t dig into the road.

Step 3: Plug in the lights, and run a full check to make sure the indicators and brake lights are working.

Step 4: Make sure the boat’s transom is attached to the trailer using transom tie-down straps (they’re worth buying if your trailer didn’t come with a set; or in a pinch, use rope). While you’re back there, insert the drain plug. Forgetting the plug when launching is probably the most common (and potentially catastrophic) mistake that boaters make. Do it before you even get to the launch so that you have one less thing to worry about.

Step 5: Before you hit the road, step up in the boat, and make sure that there’s nothing that could blow out or get bumped out, such as lifejackets. If you’re carrying gear in the boat, store it in the middle or near the bow; too much weight near the stern can cause the trailer to sway. Once everything is stowed, firmly fasten your boat cover if you’re using one.

Step 6: Lastly, adjust your rear-view mirrors to take in the length of the trailer.

Practising

If you’re new to all this and drive your boat from the dealership right to the launch, you’re just asking for trouble. Right out of the gate, you should know that while on the road, you need to leave double the room for braking with a heavy load, and to give yourself extra space for wide turns.

Of course, the hardest part about launching is actually backing up with the boat on the trailer. If you’re not confident in your reversing skills, you need to practise, a lot, and way before you try an actual launch. To practise, go to a large, empty parking lot, and keep trying until you can consistently manoeuvre the trailer into a parking spot.

While trailer veterans, perhaps even your own parents, make it look easy, there’s no question that backing up can be confusing. Why? The back of the trailer moves in the opposite direction of the vehicle. When you turn the steering wheel clockwise, the back of the vehicle will go to the right as usual, but the back of the trailer goes left, which can result in the dreaded jackknife. So, here’s a tip that will make the whole operation a lot easier: grasp the wheel, with one hand palm down at six o’clock. From this position, if you want the back of your trailer to go left, you move your hand to the left and vice versa.

Launching

Once you’re confident that you can handle the trailer consistently, you’re ready to head to the put-in, but, again, don’t rush things or breach launch etiquette.
Step 1: First, park somewhere out of the way of the ramp to get your boat ready. Nothing riles up other boaters more than someone who selfishly hogs the launch while they prep their boat. In the staging area, remove the boat cover, transfer the things you’ll need from the vehicle to the boat, take off the transom straps, check that the drain plug is still inserted, and make sure that your bow and stern ropes are tied and accessible. This is also a good time to walk down to the launch so you can note any hazards, such as a sharp drop-off or a really slippery ramp. Note that you’re not unhooking the winch’s safety hook until you’re at the top of launch and ready to start backing down.

Step 2: Check that your side mirrors are properly adjusted. From the driver’s seat, you should see the side of the trailer on the inner half of each mirror; the outer half will show any hazards approaching. Give yourself plenty of room to get the towing vehicle and trailer in alignment with the slip. Remember, small steering movements are all you need. Start reversing, then stop when you’re at the top of the ramp, and unhook the winch’s safety hook. If you’re with someone else, have them get inside the boat so they can reverse the boat off the trailer using the boat’s engine once it’s in the water. If you’re on your own, tie the bow rope to the winch handle so the boat doesn’t float away when the water lifts it off the trailer. Reverse down the launch, slowly, until the stern begins to float. If launching into salt water using a trailer with brakes, try to avoid getting them wet.

Step 3: Once the boat is floating, that’s when your partner (if you have one) starts the boat, puts it in reverse, and drives it to the dock. If you’re on your own, put your car in park, apply the emergency brake, and exit the vehicle. Untie the bow rope from the winch, move the boat to the dock, and secure it. Hustle back to your car, pull away from the ramp, and go park.

All that’s left then is to enjoy a great day on the water.

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