Saturday, May 16, 2009

28 checks for trailer sailors before launching a boat from a trailer

Too many sailors audition for the part of "boat ramp comic". Try not to be one of them by following these checklist steps for preparing a boat for trailering and for launching a boat from a trailer. Note that the exact order of these steps may depend upon your circumstances and whether you have helpers and how capable they are. Modify the order and steps as needed and skip those that don't apply to you.

By the way -- don't forget the drain plug.


(1) Check weather and conditions. Let someone know where you're going, especially if you're going alone -- file a "float plan" with a reliable friend and make arrangements to check in with a shore-based buddy or cruising companion. Find out about local conditions at your destination. Match your personal and boat gear to expected conditions. A "float coat", wet suit, dry suit, or full foul-weather and other gear may be needed for cold, wet conditions; a floppy hat and lots of sunscreen and water for hot sun. Does your boat have communications gear (cell phone, VHF, CB, SSB/amateur radio, EPIRB, etc.) on board suitable for where you'll be? Are there special rules for what kind of equipment you'll need?

(2) Prepare yourself and your crew. Does the state or province where you'll be boating require operator training or a license? Do your crew know what to bring and how to help out? Do you and your crew know basic navigation and safety rules? Do you feel comfortable towing and back a boat and trailer? Would you like to do some practice? Do you want to recruit help for setting up your rig, rigging the boat, and launching it? Do you have signals set up and a good understanding of who does what at the boat ramp?

(3) Check tires -- check pressure, tread wear and condition. Covering the tires or putting a sheet of wood or plastic alongside them may help during storage. Trailer tires often require much higher pressure than auto tires and some gas station coin-op air compressors don't do a good job of providing it. Don't forget to check the spare -- you do have one, don't you? You do have a tire gauge, don't you? One that can read the higher pressures used by trailer tires?

(4) Check bearings; grease them as needed. Try to match the grease in use and make sure it can handle water immersion and high temperatures. Re-packing the bearings every year or so is a great idea. Having a spare set of bearings packed in grease and a plastic bag with a grease gun is a good precaution before a long-distance journey.

(5) Check condition of trailer. Are any wires broken? Bunk boards missing, loose, or lacking carpet? Do rollers turn freely or need lubrication? Some of these things may be easier to fix when the boat is off the trailer, but most of them can be checked with the boat on the trailer. Is the trailer the right size and type to support the boat? Are the axles rated for the weight of the boat?

(6) Check the fit and balance of the boat on the trailer. Tongue weight should be around 5% of the total weight of the boat and trailer or perhaps a tiny bit more. If the tongue weight is seriously wrong, you'll have a harder, more dangerous tow.

(7) Check attachment of boat to trailer. Does the winch lock securely? Do you have a back-up/secondary attachment line from the front of the trailer to the eye in the bow of the boat? Is the front of the boat winched snugly to the pad on the post at the front of the trailer? Are any tie-down straps snug but not super-tight? Straps should be snug, and a couple of twists in each strap is actually a good thing. Straps that are way too tight could put strain on the trailer frame and cause it to fail (by not being able to flex in response to road vibration, bumps and potholes, speed bumps, etc.).

(8) Is the motor secure on the boat? Are any props, struts, chocks, or straps attached properly? Is it tilted up properly so it won't hit the ground during a bump? Are sailboat rudders, centerboards, or daggerboards secure? Have any items been secured that might otherwise blow away or be damaged during a highway tow? Is there stuff in the boat that might fall down and break or spill? Are bimini tops and other canvas items secure?

(9) Check legalities -- is the trailer registration current? Boat registration? Do you need any permits or permissions for your destination? Wilderness preserves or foreign countries have various requirements, for example.


(10) Make sure your towing vehicle is a good match for the tow load and in good condition for its journey. Towing limits aren't absolutes in several senses; think about more than just the vehicle's stated limit to know whether it'll meet your needs. An under-sized or under-equipped vehicle may be able to tow a heavy load a short distance at low speed but be completely unsuited for freeway/motorway towing. Heavy duty hitches, anti-sway apparatus, heavy duty radiators, long wheel bases, and wide side mirrors can come in very handy.

Special considerations apply to long-distance towing of large boats; special permits may be required, towing may not be permitted during certain days or times of time, more restrictive speed limits may apply, and different states and jurisdictions have different rules.

A 12-volt compressor or air tank and a mechanic's jack just might be nice things to have; the jack on your car may not be a good fit for your boat trailer.

(11) Check the hitch ball on your towing vehicle. Make sure it's the right size. A too-small hitch ball won't lock securely; after a few bumps on the road the hitch on the trailer could jump up off the ball and cause an accident. Sometimes it's hard to read the hitch ball size that's engraved on the front of the boat trailer. Color-coding by painting a stripe on the lower part of the ball and on the trailer could help if you have different size trailer balls. If the trailer isn't too heavy, you could try locking the hitch and the ball and then lifting to feel whether it seems secure.

(12) Lock the hitch on the ball on properly and secure a bolt, padlock, or hitch lock thorough the hole designed for this purpose. Some hitches are easier to secure than others; the bulldog style works very nicely.

(13) Attach the safety chains in a "crossed" pattern. Twist the chains a bit if there's too much slack, but leave enough slack to accommodate turns. Crossing the chains and keeping out slack helps form a cradle that can catch the front end of the trailer if it jumps off the ball (and it shouldn't if you followed steps 11 and 12 above, but even experts make mistakes).

(14) Attach trailer lights and make sure they work. Different trailers and tow vehicles may have different connectors. If your trailer is attached with trailer brakes, check those, too. Consider replacing old trailer lights with new LEDs that use less energy and resist water damage better.

(15) Make sure you have everything you need on the boat, such as safety equipment. Naturally, you'll want flash lights (electric torches) if you'll be launching in the dark. Do you have your current boat registration validation sticker properly attached to the bow, registration card in your purse, wallet, or dry bag, etc.?

(16) During the journey, check your trailer and boat -- tires (do they feel too hot?), lights, straps, etc. -- periodically during the tow. One rule of thumb is after one mile, ten miles, and every hundred miles. Remember that the tires will naturally get warm and increase their pressure while rolling at high speed. If you let air out, they'll get even hotter, and if you keep letting more air out you'll set up a spectacular failure. Don't do that!

At the boat ramp and rigging area

(17) Take care of any entry fees, boat inspections, etc. Check out the rigging area and boat ramp. See whether other people are having trouble launching. Get local advice about ramp conditions... are there sand bars? Is the ramp unusable during certain tidal conditions or lake levels? Is it suitable for your type of boat? When does it get crowded? Will you be able to turn the towing vehicle and boat around on the ramp or will you have to back all the way down? Is the bottom of the ramp slick with algae or cluttered with junk?

(18) Prepare your boat in a safe area outside the main flow of boat ramp traffic; don't hold up the line while you're removing tie-down straps and covers, raising the mast, loading gear into the boat, or doing other preps.

(19) Don't forget: disconnect trailer lights before backing into the water; otherwise you may burn them out

(20) Powerboat operators: Don't forget the drain plug!!!

(21) Sailboat operators: Be extremely careful of overhead obstacles with the mast up!!!

(22) Drive down the ramp and back the boat and trailer into position near the water's edge. Place chocks behind tires for safety. This is your last chance to disconnect trailer lights and make sure that drain plugs are inserted. Is the drain plug inserted?

(23) As needed, take care of special procedures needed by some trailers, such as extension of trailer extension bars, deployment of launch wheels, or release of trailer tilt mechanisms. Is the drain plug inserted?

(24) Deep-keel sailboats are often lowered on a cable, strap, or rope. The trailer is chocked and the drop line is secured (with a proper bowline at each end and some loops to relieve stress and make it easier to untie later) between the front of the trailer and the back of the towing vehicle. The trailer hitch is then disconnected from the ball, the safety chains are removed (a loop of trailer line is run around the hitch ball), and the trailer light connectors are undone. Then the towing vehicle is driven up the ramp, taking pressure off the trailer chocks, and the chocks are removed.

If the boat cannot be lowered immediately adjacent to the courtesy dock/pier, then at least one person must remain on the boat unless helpers can tend long lines from the boat to the courtesy pier.

The boat and trailer are then lowered to the proper depth so that the boat and its keel can clear the trailer.

In some cases, if an underwater sandbar prevents the trailer from rolling down far enough into the water, a line may need to be attached to the back end of the trailer and pulled from the end of the courtesy dock pier or by a powerboat.

(25) Launch the boat! Before releasing the boat from the trailer, you'll probably want to make sure that the motor is working properly (is the fuel tank vent open?), fenders are deployed, a paddle is handy (just in case!) and everything is ready to go.

(26) Take care of the trailer. Retrieve chocks, store the trailer securely (preferably in a secured, well-lit location if you'll be leaving it for a long time). Make sure any entry/parking stickers are displayed properly. Stow loose gear properly and keep valuables out of sight and secure. Lock the towing vehicle and trailer. The order of this and the next step may have to be changed if you're launching solo.

(27) Take care of boat business; tie the boat to the courtesy pier with proper cleat hitches and fenders in the right places, finish loading and checking the boat, fuel the boat at the marina if needed (with the proper oil mix, of course), fill and secure ballast tanks on water-ballast boats, check navigation lights, fuel levels, etc. Make sure all the gear you need is ready to hand or stowed properly, and that you, your crew, and the boat are prepared for conditions that may change rapidly while you're on the water. Brief your crew and show them where to find equipment and how to use it. Does your crew how to get in and out of the boat safely? Know how to operate the radio? Rescue you if you accidentally fall in? Know what to do if you're in a small boat and it capsizes?

(28) Boat safely, follow the rules, and watch out for the other guys who may not be watching for you. Enjoy your time on the water and good luck boating, sailing, racing, cruising, skiing, tubing, fishing, hunting, wildlife watching, or whatever it is that brings you to the water.

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At 7:09 AM, May 21, 2009, Blogger Mal's Team Gherkin said...

good stuff! i know most of that is "obvious", but sometimes it's imprtant to state the obvious for the less "mentally-challenged" sailors of us out there! heh heh. I'll forward this post onto a good friend of mine with a trailer sailor as well. Thanks :)
Mal :)
PS. I came here via Tillerman's blog :)


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