Float your boat

Graham Lloyd | VOLUME 26, ISSUE 4

There’s always room for improvement when it comes to launching or retrieving your boat…

Launching and retrieving your trailerboat can be a daunting process, but a little planning and preparation can make even your first attempt a whole lot easier. Practice soon builds confidence and, before you know it, the whole process is relaxed and enjoyable.

Before launching, maybe even before you leave home, always make sure that someone reliable knows where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Log in with any local radio base or volunteer organisation, or with someone you can count on to do the right thing if you don’t return within a reasonable leeway of the nominated time.

Whether your crew are regulars or along for the first time, let them know what to do during launching and retrieval as well as whilst on board. If you want them to help, explain in advance what they’ll individually have to do. If you don’t need them to help (i.e., you don’t want them to get in the way), let them know that, too. Advise them where to stand so they can help most easily or watch without hindering. Also, let them know how, and when, they will be getting on or off the boat.

Explain to them where the safety equipment is stowed and offer to show how to fit lifejackets, operate fire extinguishers and flares etc. At the very least, briefly describe any marine radio you have on board so they can call for help in an emergency if you are incapacitated.

On larger boats, show your passengers where key equipment or facilities (such as the toilet) are located and instruct them on what they can and can’t use without your help or permission. Explain any rules you have whilst they are onboard – such as children always wearing lifejackets, no moving around (on a small boat, anyway) when underway, and so on. And ensure there is at least one other person on board who can safely operate the boat – just in case something happens to you.


When you arrive at the ramp, pull up out of the way while you prepare for launching – there’s usually an area set aside for getting ready. Make sure that you’re not obstructing others using the ramp as you get ready. Until you are experienced, it can be helpful to have a written checklist of things to do, and the sequence in which to do them.

If you’re unfamiliar with the ramp, take a few minutes to check it out – is the surface steep or slippery, is there a sudden drop-off at the end of the ramp (and note how far back you can safely take the trailer), know where you’ll bring the boat back ashore after launching, and generally watch how and where others are launching their boats. Even if you know the ramp well, have a quick look around in case something has recently changed.

Plan ahead for how you will get onboard after the boat has been launched. Larger boats can have higher sides that may be difficult to climb. If needed, have a ladder rigged on the side of the boat.

Remove any covers on your boat, take off the tie-downs and check that the drain bungs are screwed in tight. If you have lights or a lightboard to be removed from the trailer, do that and stow them/it safely and then load any required items from the tow vehicle into the boat.

Remove any warning flag or ribbon you had on the prop and unlatch the tilt lock on the outboard or sterndrive. Secure your lines onto the appropriate cleats, ready to control the boat as it slips into the water. Unless you are going to drive the boat off the trailer, have a bow line long enough to maintain control of the boat as it comes off the trailer and is pulled back into the ramp.

Loosen the winch’s safety chain shackle pin, but don’t release the chain yet. Put the winch handle somewhere close by while you back down the ramp. Don’t just leave it on the winch drive shaft, as it can easily fall off. The winch handle will often be secure if tucked under the winch drum, or into the winch support post on the trailer. If you have an electric winch, ensure that power is connected and any remote switch system is ready for use.

Hop onboard and carefully check the bilge and engine compartment for fuel or oil leaks, using that invaluable sniffer device – your nose – to check for the smell of any petrol or gas vapour. If a smell is detected, keep everyone well clear while you fix any leaks and thoroughly ventilate the whole boat until all vapours and smells are long gone.

Move the steering wheel until the outboard (or sterndrive, or rudder) is amidships, then turn on the battery master switch. For inboard or sterndrive engines, switch on the bilge blower even if your previous ‘sniffer check’ was clear. Check that the ignition key is in its switch as it’s frustrating (and embarrassing) to launch your boat then have to run back to the tow vehicle (or back home) for the keys. If you have a primer bulb or electric pump, prime the fuel line so there’s a supply ready at the engine.

Particularly if the ramp is crowded, it may be worthwhile rigging a couple of fenders down the sides of the boat. That’s applicable, too, if you are going to pull along side a jetty after launching. Have your emergency paddles where they can be easily reached just in case you have engine problems in the proximity of the ramp. Get any youngsters in the crew into their lifejackets – adults, too, if the style of boat or conditions (or local laws) make that advisable.

If some of the crew are in the boat while you launch, have them sit down and hold on in positions where the boat’s balance and launching will not be adversely affected. With everything ready, double check that the drain bungs are in tight, the bow line is secured and that any transom tie-downs have been removed. Many skippers have been caught out while heaving away because the tie-downs (especially those out of sight on the transom) are still on. Frustrating for the skipper, it does provide some light entertainment for everyone else at the ramp.


Wait until there’s a clear section of ramp and back your trailer down to the water. If you have the trailer set up right, you will not need to use the potentially dangerous technique of reversing down the ramp and suddenly braking to jerk the boat free. How far you have to immerse your trailer will depend on the boat-trailer combination, and on the ramp. It’s best to keep your trailer wheel bearings above water level, but often that’s just not practical.

With the trailer immersed as little as possible, but as much as needed, apply the tow vehicle’s handbrake and put it in ‘park’ (or turn off the engine and engage first gear for a manual transmission).

If you or a crewmember are going to drive the boat away from the ramp as it comes off the trailer, tilt down your outboard or drive until the prop is underwater, check that your cooling water pickup is submerged, and start your engine. Idle it for a short while so it won’t stall when you engage gear – but don’t do that just yet.

Unshackle the safety chain, being careful not to lose the shackle or its pin. If you have an all-roller trailer, tie off the bow line to the trailer to restrain the boat. Release the tension on the winch wire or strap (you do have the winch handle ready, don’t you?) and unshackle it.

Check that all is clear behind your boat and confirm where you will put it when it comes off the trailer. The three usual options are to pull it back into the ramp, to move it to a beach or jetty alongside the ramp, or have someone onboard who can drive it out from the ramp. If the ramp is busy, plan carefully what you’re going to do, and have an alternative plan in case some other boat gets in the way at the last moment.

Whilst holding the bow line, just a gentle push (or merely unfastening the bow line for a freewheeling all-roller trailer) should have your pride and joy slipping gracefully into the water. Some all-roller trailers have such little resistance that the boat can move off quite quickly – be prepared for this and use the bow line to control the speed of the boat as it slides into the water.

If the boat isn’t being driven away from the trailer, pull it back into the ramp on its bow line, or move it to the beach/jetty as you’d planned. If the boat is being driven off, do so carefully, especially if there are others boats (or people) in the water nearby. Again, make sure you plan ahead as to where the boat will be driven and held.

With the boat clear of the trailer, drive your tow vehicle slowly back up the ramp. Don’t accelerate quickly – your trailer will cause a wash that will upset others at the ramp. Park your vehicle and trailer carefully, and return to your boat as quickly as you can so you don’t hold up others waiting to launch or retrieve.

Once onboard your boat, start and idle your engine before you push away from the shore or jetty. It’s always preferable to have the engine running. If it fails to start for any reason, you won’t drift around while working to overcome the problem.

Before you drive away, retrieve and stow all lines and fenders so your boat is shipshape. When appropriate, turn off the bilge blower. Now that the boat is in the water, reposition any equipment or crew if needed to get it optimally balanced and trimmed.


When returning to the ramp, have everything planned in advance with your crew briefed on what to do. As you approach the ramp area, get your lines and fenders rigged, and make sure you have the tow vehicle’s keys with you so you are ready to bring it down to the ramp.

If the ramp area is crowded, hang back and watch what’s going on for a minute or two. When you see a clear spot on the ramp, beach or jetty, idle in slowly but decisively with due deference to everyone else. Trim up your outboard or sterndrive as you approach shallow water, and stop the engine before it gets too shallow. Unless you’re going to drive on to the trailer, tilt up the outboard or sterndrive.

Be ready to disembark and hold the boat alongside the jetty or on the beach or ramp. For the latter, be ready to hop over the side (rig a ladder, if required) so you can stop the boat running aground. Leaving the boat secured or held by a crew member, get your trailer ready for the retrieval.

Before taking your trailer down to the water, have the winch wire or strap run out and clipped somewhere convenient, and leave the winch handle where you can quickly reach it. Back the trailer down the ramp – preferably alongside your boat, or as close as possible to it. At a crowded ramp, you may have to back down in front of the boat, and have a crew member push it out behind the trailer.

Align the boat with the trailer guides or rollers, attach the winch wire or strap, and winch the boat up to snug the bow against its roller. Check that the boat came on centrally, and that the hull is properly supported by the trailer rollers and/or beds. If you drive your boat onto its trailer, do so very carefully and do not use so much power that you cause a maelstrom in the water with your prop – not only is that a nuisance for others, but it will wash away the bed of the ramp area. It may be best, and safest, to drive the boat part way onto the trailer, then winch it the rest of the way. A well set-up trailer should not require excessive effort to winch the boat up against its winch roller.

Shackle the safety chain in place. Ensure your outboard or sterndrive is tilted up enough to clear the ground, and tow the trailer up to the preparation area. If you’ve been out in saltwater, hose down your trailer and flush the engine with freshwater. If you can’t do this at the ramp, do both jobs as soon as you get home.

Tilt the outboard or sterndrive back down for a couple of minutes and let all the cooling water drain out. Remove the transom drain plugs and check to see how much water comes out – it should be minimal. If more than a trickle drains out, find out as soon as you can where the water is getting in and fix it.

Leave the drain plugs out for the tow home. As you go up and down hills, any residual water will drain out, and some air will circulate around the bilges. Re-fit your tie-downs, lights and covers as needed, and ensure the lights are working correctly.

Tilt the outboard/drive back up and engage the tilt lock, and re-fit any warning flag or ribbon on the prop. Turn off the battery master switch and generally inspect the boat to see all is well and nothing is hanging down.

Put any rubbish in bins, and do a final check that you have your winch handle and all tools and equipment back in place before you drive off. Fill up the fuel tank on the way home, if you can. A full tank minimises condensation that could otherwise contaminate your fuel, and having your tank topped off also means you’re all set for the next outing.

How to-Safety