Tips for the novice boater
  |  First Published: April 2016

So, you have finally landed the big one: a boat of your own! The first move is to get to know the new boat, whether it’s a small tinny towed behind a four-cylinder family sedan or a larger vessel that sits sedately behind a big 4x4. Either way, that boat is going to be a part of your life, and take up a surprising amount of time out of the water. It will reward TLC handsomely, and pay back any neglect just as thoroughly!

At home: the trailer

First things first: most boats are on a trailer and it’s a pretty smart idea to make sure all nuts and bolts are properly tightened from the outset. This is especially important if the unit has seen some prior use. Do remember though, that galvanised bolts can strip their thread if over-tightened, so nipped up is tight enough. A 30cm ring spanner swinging hard on a galvanised nut is going to see the thread stripped in short order. While you are checking things, duck in behind the trailer wheels and ensure the nuts on the U-bolts holding the spring sets in place aren’t loose. Why not treat the springs with a corrosion inhibitor spray while you’re at it?

While you’re there, it’s also a good idea to wriggle right under the trailer and ensure all rollers are actually in contact with the hull. Try to turn them by hand. Any loose ones certainly need re-alignment but do ensure they’re not loose as the result of another roller nearby being too high. With alloy boats it’s vital to keep all rollers in correct touch with the hull to avoid damaging it. Remember, a roller that’s too high will actually dent the keel or hull over time.

Next, take a look at the winch cable. If it’s metal and obviously brand new there’s a fair amount of useful life in it so long as it’s washed around the tow hook after each trip to the ramp. If it’s somewhat aged or rusted and there are tiny breaks in it, causing small bits to dig into your hands or fingers, it would pay to replace it with a Dyneema cable. Dyneema winch cables are brilliant. They cannot rust, pack down onto themselves or develop those nasty ‘bities’ from the tiny breaks as do metal ones. Straps on winches work OK but can bind down on themselves or possibly work loose when travelling (I have seen this) even after being tightened up quite firmly at the ramp.

Wheel bearings on a boat trailer are out of sight but should never be out of mind as they work hard, cop abuse from saltwater and need to be adjusted correctly and protected from that briny stuff. A lot of boat owners rely on the protection of Bearing Buddys which are good so long as you don’t go overboard with the grease gun and pump the grease in until it pours out the back seal (thus rendering the seal useless).

A useful alternative to Bearing Buddys are Dura Hubs. I’ve used them under three of my boats, and they’re very effective and easy to use. The Dura Hub system sees the bearings revolving in an oil bath while the hub is effectively sealed both front and rear against grime or water intrusion. There’s also a polycarbonate window on each Dura Hub that lets you check the oil level and also see that the oil is not contaminated with saltwater.

Dura Hubs are most easily fitted to a new hub, but with professional expertise during installation they can also be fitted to older hubs once any corrosion is removed to ensure correct alignment of the rear seal.

Assessing correct bearing adjustment is easy with an unbraked trailer; it only involves jacking a wheel up and giving it a spin to see if it makes any sound other than a very faint whirring noise as the wheel revolves. Grumbles, rumbles or squeals mean you have a failed bearing, which requires a close look inside that hub. This should never be an issue in a new trailer but sometimes even new trailers can have bearings adjusted too tightly, and while the wheel spins it does not do so as quite freely as it should. The idea is to check on the hubs after about 20 minutes’ travel time and see if they are any more than slightly warm. If they are actually hot, those bearings need some slackening in adjustment or they will be damaged.

Note that if the trailer is a braked model it’s best to have bearings professionally checked, adjusted and the brake system serviced at the same time. The more frequently the whole lot goes into saltwater, the more frequent the need for a serious look at things.

At home with the engine

Outboard engines are in the vast majority these days and don’t need much more than a good flush after use and a wash-down to keep them in good nick. A bit of water repellent spray under the cowl is wise, and most manufacturers have their own brands of spray for this purpose.

Flushing boat engines is vital because even freshwater can have stuff in it that’s not good to leave in the engine for an extended period. Most boat owners use earmuffs to flush their smaller outboards, but unless the muffs are properly fitting onto the lower unit a lot of water can bypass the inlet grille, leading to possible engine overheating. It’s a good idea to assess how strongly the water flow is from the engine when being flushed in comparison to the normal on-water flow. If the flushing outflow looks weak it would be best to replace the muffs, or try using a bungy cord to hold the muffs in closer contact while flushing the engine.

Never, ever, set up muffs to flush a running engine and move out of sight of proceedings. If a hose connection pops or the water flow is somehow disrupted, that engine will cook very rapidly. If you have to leave the area, stop the engine and turn off the hose.

These days many electric start outboards have a rope-start system as a fallback against loss of power – perish the thought – to crank the engine into life, but to use the rope to turn the engine’s fly wheel there’s usually a couple of bits or pieces to be removed. It’s a very good idea have a look at the engine manual and assess what’s required to remove these items and then store the appropriate tools somewhere in the boat. Those are the easy, ‘at home’ hints covered, so now let’s take a look at actual use.

At the ramp

With the boat properly secured it’s off to the ramp – and this is where a lot of first time boaters come to grief. Boat ramps can be a source of stress, and things that compound that stress are the owner’s inexperience, adverse tide or weather conditions plus other boat owners making things difficult by jumping a queue, blocking access to the ramp or being rude.

While we have no control over others, we do make our own choices. For the new boater, things to consider are the state of the tide at the chosen ramp, how likely it is that the prevailing wind will affect it, and how busy it’s likely to be. You can help ease the tension by taking a pre-launch look at the ramp, its parking, and general access prior to the big event. You’ll want to have a game plan, taking into account things that might go bit pear-shaped and how to best avoid them.

Prior to launch you’ll need to stop at the area next to the ramp to get things ready. If you attempt to perform this task on the ramp itself, rather than next to it, you will be very unpopular! Other ramp users may dish up some colourful language telling you what they think of you. Other users want to launch, too, and holding them up is a no-no.

With the engine lifted up, all gear loaded, bungs in, rear tie-downs removed and with both the shackle up front and the trailer hook free to be removed, the boat is ready to come off the trailer. A hint: when you have a rope attached to a heavier boat to release it into the water, never allow the boat to whizz off the trailer at full speed at a ramp as this is a sure way of dropping the transducer onto something hard and damaging it.

Backing a trailer requires practice and there’s nothing wrong with having someone walk along beside the driver to provide a situation report on how things are going. Once the boat’s off the trailer it should be moved to the side of the ramp or onto the outer section of any adjacent pontoon while waiting for the car crew to return. At this time always be conscious of other boat owners wanting to launch or retrieve. Make sure they get a fair go at things. It might mean you have to move the boat a bit, but that’s no big deal.

On the water

When it comes to water travel, remember the old rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. You’ll need to get the feel of the new boat, but confidence builds rapidly in boating. Remember, if you must pass close by another craft, slow down and pass off the plane so your wash doesn’t knock them about. Also, if someone seems to be catching more fish than you are, don’t immediately assume that you should move right to that spot, or head over to seek advice. You’ll get advice all right but it won’t be what you wanted to hear!

The retrieval

So your adventure is over and it’s time to retrieve the boat. At this point it’s wise to assess what others are doing as your craft approaches the ramp at a reduced speed. You don’t want to cause wash issues for people attempting to get a boat onto a trailer against current or wind.

Where there’s a pontoon or jetty beside the ramp there’s plenty of wriggle room to move or relocate, but a boat sitting just beside a ramp poses a question: is it going out or being retrieved? A gap between the craft and the ramp can indicate the team is departing, but the only way to be sure is to either hover nearby or gently approach shore on the side away from the previous craft and the ramp, and with the bow pulled up on the sand wait and see what develops. Moving in turn makes sense, and while common sense is not common it does go a long way around boat ramps.

Once your trailer is in position, one option is to get the boat aligned and drive it on to the trailer. This takes practice. Approach things carefully and stand up to assess the correct alignment on the trailer. The alternative option is to hold the craft onto the lead roller and in place while it’s winched up onto the trailer. Again, get that boat well away from the main launch/retrieve area prior to stowing gear and preparing for the drive home.

If another party is in difficulties ahead of you, consider offering to help them. As well as being the decent thing to do, it’s also practical – because the sooner they are on their way, the sooner you can get your craft out!

I hope these hints help to make your boating more enjoyable. They have definitely made my boating life easier. And for those anonymous folk who have helped me retrieve the 5.5m Galey in somewhat dodgy conditions over the years at that mongrel ramp at Cabbage Tree Point, many thanks mates! I hope to return the favour.

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