Some boat owners enjoy taking their boat out singlehanded. Some maybe don’t have any friends or family to help (or perhaps they’re occupied elsewhere). Either way, there are times when an owner wants to grab the boat by himself and head for the water. But there’s one stumbling block: hitching up the trailer to the tow car by himself. He can, of course, ease the car back, get out and look, get back in, try again. After he’s gone back and forth a few times, he starts thinking about a game of golf. In the process, he might give himself the badge of the novice trailerboater: a dented license plate.
As a teenager working for a boat dealer, I was once stopped by a cop because the license plate on the company tow car was so bent and bruised it was almost unreadable. He let my companion and me off with a warning, but added, “You guys really need to learn how to hitch up without hitting the plate!” At the time, we were always in a hurry and it wasn’t our truck, so the usual method of hooking up a trailer was to back up until we heard the distinctive crunch of immovable trailer meeting flimsy license plate. We could usually shove the trailer hitch onto the ball from that point. This isn’t a method I’d recommend for your personal and prized tow car. There are, however, a multitude of ways to get hitched all by yourself, without any damage. Let’s start with the low-tech (cheap) ways.
If you pull the car straight forward until you can see the trailer in the rearview mirror, you should be able to back up straight until you get close. Get out and estimate the distance between the coupler and the ball. As you back up, do something that would give any driving instructor a heart attack: put your foot on the ground. Doing so provides improved accuracy, so you don’t spear the license plate. But it still means a lot of trips in and out of the car.
If you normally leave the boat and trailer rig at home, place a brick — preferably a big heavy one that won’t move or get kicked — behind the driver’s side rear tire before you unhitch. The next time you need to hook up, just back the car, using the sideview mirror, right up to the brick, which will both stop the car and center it in the right spot. Just don’t let anyone move the brick. I used to buy a cheap radio antenna at Pep Boys, the old-fashioned kind that extended to at least three feet. I put a ping-pong ball or a red ribbon on top and screwed it to the trailer dead-center in front of the upright that held the winch, where it was clearly visible through the rearview mirror for alignment.
Today, however, a quick internet search will turn up a multitude of magnetic trailer alignment poles, for around $10. Stick one directly in front of the trailer ball on the receiver and another on top of the trailer coupler. They provide perfect alignment when they barely touch. The Camco version’s balls (search at Walmart or Amazon) are a different color, so you can tell which is which and steer accordingly.
If you’re still a bit queasy about denting the tow car, then a mirror is the next step for easy singlehanding. The internet (“trailer alignment mirror”) has numerous offerings: basically a wide-angle mirror with suction cups that is positioned either on the rear window of an SUV or on the trunk of a passenger car. Either way, the wide-angle mirror provides, through the rearview mirror, a view of the trailer ball, so you can align it under the coupler with no fuss. They range in price from $20 up to $50, depending on the quality and size of the mirror. Bigger is better!
Next up the food chain of mechanical positioning aids are adapters that place a pair of sturdy metal wings at about a 90-degree angle on the car side of the trailer ball. As you back up, you get the trailer coupler somewhere between the wings, and they will shepherd it directly over the ball. The adapters come in all thicknesses and widths, to fit any boat owner’s needs. If you’re not good at backing, get the widest possible aligner wings, and if you’re hitching to a heavy trailer rig, get the sturdiest wings.
Most expensive and highest tech is a wireless backup camera. A suction cup secures the camera — most are powered by lithium batteries — just above the trailer ball and a dashboard monitor plugs into the vehicle’s cigarette lighter. If you can’t back up perfectly every time using the miracle of modern video, perhaps you oughtn’t be driving a boat, either. Make sure any backup camera you buy is two things: waterproof (to a few feet in case you drop it in the water) and shock resistant (in case it falls onto the road).