|  First Published: November 2005

One of the biggest challenges facing a new trailer boat owner is launching and retrieving the boat.

Newcomers often wait for perfect weather to launch their boat for the first time because of their lack of confidence on the water. However, this also happens to coincide with everyone else wanting to go boating, so the ramp is generally crowded and everyone is in a hurry, which puts the beginner under even more pressure. So the first hint is to practise launching and retrieving when the weather is lousy and the boat ramp is deserted.

Backing a trailer down the ramp, for many, is the biggest challenge in the whole process, so I will go through what works for me, even though it is not the conventional method.

As a teenager on the Sunshine Coast one of my mates had the iconic Sandman panel van and I noticed he reversed it using only the mirrors. When I quizzed him about it he said he learnt from a truckie that the best way to reverse is using mirrors only. I have followed that advice ever since and have found it extremely effective.

My house is at the top of a steep rise and the driveway has an S-bend in it. If this method allows me to back the boat and trailer into my garage, it will certainly get you down a wide, straight boat ramp. As you get older your trunk and neck won’t rotate as well as they used to, so it certainly helps that you don’t have to twist 180 degrees and try to control a vehicle and trailer at the same time. The most important point to remember with this method is that the trailer will go the opposite way to your hands as they pass over the top of the steering wheel.

I will use nautical terms for direction to get rid of the problem of whether you are looking from the front or the back. When reversing, to turn the trailer to starboard, turn the wheel over the top to port (anti-clockwise). Use all three mirrors but watch the starboard trailer wheel through the starboard car mirror.

When you are dead straight you should be able to see the mudguard and maybe the tyre in the side mirror, depending on the width of your car in relation to the trailer. Once the trailer is going in the direction you want it to, back off the steering wheel a bit, so you don’t over turn. The key to backing is small movements of the steering wheel rather than large movements. As soon as you see, via the mirror, that the trailer is responding, then it is time to back off a little by turning the wheel slightly in the opposite direction.

Once the trailer is going in the right direction, straighten the wheel up again and check in the middle mirror that the trailer is straight. As you continue to back, watch each side mirror in turn for any sign the trailer is turning to one side (the mudguard and wheel will appear more in that mirror than the one on the other side). Make minor adjustments as soon as you see a change in direction.

The great thing about this method is that it can be done with less than a 90-degree turn of the head rather than trying to be a contortionist and turn around completely to have a look.

Another practice that helps to keep the trailer going where I want it to, is to use the lane lines, edge or concrete joins on the boat ramp as a guide to where I want the trailer to go. Looking through the side mirrors at the lane line will help you keep the trailer at a set distance from it as you go down. At night on a poorly lit ramp I always leave the nav lights on in the boat until I have backed down the ramp, as this acts like a lane line and gives me something to aim at to help keep the trailer straight.

The key to successful backing of a trailer is practice, and the best place to practise is a quiet straight piece of road where there are no obstacles like cars and kids. Once you can back the boat trailer in a straight line for 100m, start practising backing around a slight curve, because not all boat ramps are straight – especially on the approach. Phase two is to go to the boat ramp on a lousy day and practise backing down to the water.

Once you have mastered backing down the ramp, you are ready to launch and retrieve the boat. This is a whole new ball game that will have to wait until the next spell of bad weather!

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