How to Launch and Retrieve a Sailboat with a Trailer
Since my postings about the construction of the trailer for Black Magic, I have noticed a number of visitors to this blog have arrived via searches having to do not just with trailers in general but also with how to launch and retrieve boats. While many of my faithful readers probably already know how to do it, there are people who are new to sailboats, or who are new to trailer launching, or who don’t do anything with sailboats at all but who could benefit from understanding some of the apparently bizarre behavior of sailboat people during the launching or retrieval process. Part of the inspiration for this post is the two little old ladies in a minivan who drove right over our launch rope (it wasn’t all the way taut, thank goodness) while Tadpole, Seymour, and I were repositioning Black Magic on the trailer as we prepared to move it north.
First, this procedure doesn’t apply to all sailboats. The ones with a keel that pulls up can launch without much more difficulty than the typical motorboat. But those boats that have a fixed keel that sticks down several feet into the water need a lot more work to launch. To get the boat out into the water deep enough to float off the trailer, the trailer has to go way down the ramp, which means the towing vehicle can’t just back it down – the truck would get submerged.
Before you launch the boat, you want to make sure you have the right equipment. Your towing vehicle needs to be fairly heavy – at least a midsize SUV or pickup truck. The mass is important for keeping everything balanced. Also, your towing vehicle must NOT be front-wheel drive – when the weight of the trailer presses down on the back of the vehicle, the front wheels lose traction. Best is rear-wheel drive with an option of engaging four-wheel drive manually; next-best is all-wheel drive, which uses rear-wheel drive most of the time but switches to four-wheel drive when the black-box computer under the hood senses the need. A two-wheel drive truck is also a reasonable option in all but the most marginal conditions, so long as it’s rear-wheel drive.
In addition to the proper towing vehicle, you also need some accessories: a good, long, strong rope to use to let the trailer into the water; some good wheel chocks, preferably with ropes attached to make them easy to yank out when the time is right – you absolutely do NOT want the little cheap yellow things; possibly some additional tools depending on the design of the trailer.
The basic procedure: Driver backs the trailer up to the edge of the water. Crew places wheel chocks behind the trailer wheels. Trailer is detached from towing vehicle. The trailer’s spare tire is mounted at the front of the trailer (the exact means of mounting vary from trailer to trailer) so that it will hold the trailer tongue up and roll smoothly. A very long rope is tied from the trailer to the towing vehicle.
Next, the towing vehicle pulls forward until the rope is taut. (This was the stage at which the little old ladies threatened our operation.) The chocks are pulled out from behind the trailer wheels, and the vehicle backs up as the trailer submerges itself in the water. If all goes well, and if the boat ramp has been well maintained so there aren’t any sandbars right at the base of the ramp, the trailer should roll on out until the boat floats free. If there are sandbars, additional help may be needed, such as having people holding onto dock lines running out on the courtesy dock parallel to the ramp to try to pull the trailer and boat into the water, or enlisting the help of a nearby powerboater to pull the trailer in deep enough.
Once the boat is launched, the driver pulls forward enough to get the trailer out of the water; the trailer wheels are chocked, and the driver backs down to pick up the trailer.
Retrieving the boat isn’t all that different from launching it. If there are sandbars at the foot of the launch ramp, there may be more need to pull the empty trailer out than was needed when the boat was on it. And the boat’s mass contributed momentum to getting the trailer to roll out. Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same deal as above – chock the trailer wheels, get the line taut, unchock, back up the truck, get the boat onto the trailer, make sure it’s secure, pull out.
It’s a bit ironic, I suppose … my brother has become the Internet authority on frying eggs over-easy – I seem poised to be the world’s sailboat-trailer guru.