Learn to Launch

The ramp is not the place to discover your backing skills are lacking, so practice.

If you think bullfighting is a cruel sport, spend an hour at a launch ramp on a fine Saturday morning, watching novice trailerboaters try to get their boat in the water. While spectators critique their moves, they back to and fro, taking a snake-like path vaguely toward the water, spinning the steering wheel one way and then another, sweat popping out on their brow, and either scaring or blocking all the other boaters.
Don’t be that person.

For Newbies

Backing a boat trailer isn’t rocket science, but it’s counter-intuitive to everything we know about driving forward. It’s like trying to trim a sideburn or moustache in a mirror; every movement is confounding because it’s backwards. Get over it. Everyone can learn to back a trailer like a pro.

Place your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel to turn while backing up.

Place your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel to turn while backing up.

The starting point is practice. Lots and lots of practice. Before even taking a new rig near the water, take it to an empty parking lot and use the lot to learn the lessons you don’t want to learn on the launch ramp. Take two or three cardboard boxes or highway cones, set them a few feet wider than your boat and practice backing the trailer between them. Bring extras because — guaranteed — you’ll run over them a few times.

One of the lessons to learn at the empty lot is that small movements of the wheel translate to big movements of the trailer. Drivers not understanding that is how many trailers get jackknifed: a little inattention gets the trailer sideways quickly.

The basic rule for backing the trailer is to grab the steering wheel at the bottom, palm down. If you move the wheel to the right, the back of the boat and trailer will move right. It’s such a simple method that drivers of 18-wheelers still use it after thousands of miles on the road.

Pick a launch ramp with care. Skip the small ones that require drivers to back in a curve. Instead, find a ramp with plenty of space, so you can line the boat up and then back straight into the water. Trust me, you’ll have enough problems just backing straight that you don’t want to complicate things.

Most newbies get their side mirrors all wrong. Ideally, the tow vehicle will have extra-wide mirrors; if not, add clamp-on wide mirrors just for launching. Set the mirrors so one-third of the mirror is filled with the boat and especially the trailer wheels. Roll the windows down so you can see better, and get rid of any passengers: they can become your observers.

An observer can act as a second set of eyes, but make sure he understands he should see your face in the mirror to be of help. Agree on simple hand signals: point left, point right, pulling to continue, fist to stop. Shouting is for hackers. Remind your observer to look up, too, since there may be branches or wires in the way.

Most newcomers to backing a trailer get in trouble because they try to keep going or try to save an out-of-line path. Stop, pull forward, straighten everything out and start fresh. Even the most experienced trailer backer-uppers have moments when they must start over. It’s the mark of a smart driver to recognize that a problem is easily solved by starting over.

Improving Intermediates

When you’ve mastered backing straight, it’s time to learn to handle turning the trailer into the perfect launch position. Once again, it’s time to head back to the empty parking lot with yet more boxes.

When backing up in a curve, find your own “comfort zone” at the empty parking lot. In my case, I prefer a curving turn to the left that allows me to look out the driver’s window and see the whole side of the boat. Others prefer to back to the right, using the far mirror to set their course.

The key to turning the boat is planning its path. Just as a baseball pitcher checks out the mound and even kicks the dirt, you should walk over the launch area and look around. Is there a landmark such as a weed in the ramp that you can use as a turning point for the trailer tires?

If possible, leave enough room so the trailer is straightened out a few feet before it hits the water. Doing so keeps you from blocking other boats and makes departure easier.
Backing up in a turn means there’s another important area to watch: the front end. The front end of the tow vehicle is going to be making a bigger swing than the trailer, so be aware of trees, pipes, fire hydrants or, even worse, some other skipper’s fender.

Pro Tip

Want to look like a real pro? Back up entirely using the rearview mirrors. Watch a truck driver back his 18-wheeler into a small loading dock; his head is never twisting around, because that’s uncomfortable. He’s perfected his side-mirror skills, so he can place the trailer exactly where he wants it, and so can you. Once again, go back to the parking lot to crush some boxes. You’ll gain confidence putting the trailer where you want it, perfectly, every time.

Don’t expect people in the crowd of spectators at the launch ramp to applaud or throw roses like at a bullfight, but you know they’ll be saying to each other, “Now there’s a real pro!”

One thought on “Learn to Launch

  1. Hi Chris, Love your article – it is very well written. I learned how to really back up a trailer getting certified to drive tractor trailer at Consolidated Freightways. (Some of the drivers could back down a set into the loading dock.) One key they taught is to imagine a circle that includes the steering wheel and goes around the rear of the trailer. Turning the steering wheel right moves the rear of the trailer along the circle (to the left – but you don’t have to think about it). It works better using just mirrors (as you suggest). Looking out the right side mirror, if the trailer is too close to the right side turn the wheel right and the back of the trailer moves over. A diagram would make it really clear – another way to say it is the driver that taught me was sitting behind the wheel and held his arms up in a wide hug towards the steering wheel making the circle – and with his hands on the wheel showed how if you pull your right hand back (a right turn) it moves your right shoulder back (representing the right rear of the trailer). If you memorize this you’ll never be confused on which way to turn the wheel. Best, Tom in Seattle


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