We’ve always believed that in addition to requiring boat owners to take boating safety courses approved by the U.S. Coast Guard, boat owners who trailer their boats in and out of boat ramps should be required to take trailer lessons, preferably from a professional driver or experienced seaman.
At the outset, McShane Yacht Sales will gladly spend some time with a new owner going over the basics of trailer operations and maintenance. Just ask! It can be tricky to drive a vehicle around town with a heavy powerboat attached to a trailer, much less know the tricks on how to get that boat safely into and out of the water. So don’t go all macho… if you have some questions, just ask.
For this article, we will assume that you’ve done the basic research on what size trailer you need for your boat, what size vehicle can safely transport your boat (hooking a 40-footer up to a VW Bug is not advised!), and that you’ve had a little experience backing a boat down a boat ramp, and guiding your boat back onto the trailer at the end of the day.
If you don’t have that experience, it’s a good idea to practice some before attempting your first launch. Find a large empty parking lot and practice driving around, backing up, getting used to the left-means-right steering when in reverse. You can practice driving your trailer with or without the boat attached. But it’s always a good idea to know what might happen, especially when you’ve got a motor car and a boat and a trailer to think about.
That said, here are some tips for trailer operations that every boater should know.
- Practice your towing skills.
Practice steering, backing up, and just simply driving around with your boat trailer. Ideally, practice towing the trailer with the boat on it as well. Do this in a large—and empty!—parking lot, on a road you know will see very little traffic or, if possible, on your own property.
Don’t be embarrassed to use cones as you learn the characteristics of your boat trailer in a turn, as you reverse, and so forth. Every crushed or knocked-over cone represents a time you won’t cause a car accident later down the road.
- Choose the right trailer.
Everything from the type of metal (aluminum or galvanized steel?) to shape (bunk or roller?) to gross vehicle weight (how big is that boat of yours, anyway?) to number of axles plays a role here.
Choosing the right trailer means selecting one that best works with your boat and with the automobile that will be towing it. Take the time to make the right choice, and by all means talk to a professional from a company that makes and/or sells boat trailers to get more information.
- Tips for launching
Launching your boat off the trailer is less dramatic than it might sound. It’s more like gently sliding the boat into the water than blasting a Saturn V rocket into space.
The key here is to always back the trailer and boat far enough into the water for a safe, smooth launch, without going in so far in that the towing vehicle is at risk of submersion.
Once you have the boat in far enough, so that its water intake ports are submerged and it can achieve buoyancy, stop the automobile. Put it in gear or park, set the parking brake, then turn it off.
Now hook a bow line to the front of the boat and to the trailer winch (or a winch on the vehicle). Unlatch the boat and lower it into the water until it’s floating free of the trailer.
Disconnect the bow line—as long as there’s someone in the boat who’s ready to take the controls.
- Getting the boat back on the trailer
Before you worry about getting the boat on or even near your trailer, first get your trailer positioned properly.
There’s no magic formula here. Just make sure the back of the trailer is well submerged and the front of the trailer, including the winch, is well out of the water.
And never back down a ramp far enough that the tow vehicle is at all in the water. That’s asking for trouble.
Until you’re quite handy with boat trailering, it’s better to approach the trailer very slowly using the boat’s motor and then to cut the power and haul the boat onto the trailer using the bow line and winch. Once you have it down, feel free to cruise onto the trailer and use the winch just for the last few feet.
- Steering while towing a boat
If you’re only going to remember two things about steering a trailer, let them be these:
The trailer takes turns tighter than the tow vehicle.
Your boat trailer will effectively turn inside of your turn, so you have to make your turns wider than will feel natural. The faster you’re going, however, the less true this is.
As a general rule of thumb, when driving at speed, just give yourself a bit of extra room in turns but generally drive naturally. At slow speeds, like turning 90 degrees at an intersection, give yourself a lot of extra space.
When backing up with a trailer, left is right.
When you’re backing up with a boat trailer, turning the wheel of your car to the left will make the trailer go to the right. And vice versa. Yep, things are reversed. It’s a tricky mental game just to keep that straight, and then even harder to execute.
Just remember this: The main error people make when driving a trailer in reverse is to steer too far to one side or the other. Usually, a slight turn followed by straightening out the wheel is the best bet.
- Get balanced
You have to have your boat properly positioned on the trailer in order to operate it safely. That means having its center of gravity on the center of the trailer, making sure it’s properly attached to the frame, and all that other logical stuff. But don’t overlook the fact that the way the boat itself is loaded can have an effect on things.
Make sure any gear (including coolers, fuel canisters, fishing supplies, and so forth) that you have left in the boat during a tow isn’t only securely lashed to the boat but positioned smartly.
A boat that’s front-heavy or back-heavy is unsafe from the get-go, but so too is one in which gear can shift around, changing the balance.
You might think supplies stowed in a cabin are safe during a tow, but while they won’t fall overboard, they might shift about and throw off the balance.
- Safe and Legal
Your boat trailer must have lights that can be connected to the towing vehicle.
These include the brake lights, turn signals and sometimes the reverse lights as well. That way the drivers behind you as you tow your boat can see when you intend to turn, when you’re braking, and when you may be heading backward towards them.
Take the time to connect these lights every time you tow your boat. It’s a matter of safety, which should be reason enough, but is also mandated by law, which is also a pretty good reason to do things.
- Take Care of Your Trailer
Remember to rinse off the trailer and cover it up after use!
Even a boat trailer made from stainless steel or anodized aluminum will rust and corrode eventually unless properly cared for. After you’ve gotten your boat off the trailer and in the water, or else once the boat and trailer are both safely back on your property, rinse the trailer off with fresh water, especially if the boat was in salt water. Then let the trailer air dry or take the time to wipe it down.
And for those long periods of inactivity, especially in a New England winter, cover your trailer with a heavy-duty tarp.
Tips for Taking Care of Your Trailer
Remember to rinse off the trailer and cover it up after use!
Even a boat trailer made from stainless steel or anodized aluminum will rust and corrode eventually unless property cared for. After you’ve gotten your boat off the trailer and in the water, or else once the boat and trailer are both safely back on your property, rinse the trailer off with fresh water, especially if the boat was in salt water. Then let the trailer air dry or take the time to wipe it down.
And for those long periods of inactivity, especially in a climate with cold winters that see precipitation, cover your trailer with a heavy-duty tarp (check price on Amazon) and protect it from the elements whenever you can.
It will last for years and years if you care for it well.