Boating Bits

PRACTICAL BOATING: Reversing right

Patrick Brennan offers some timely tips to ensure you don’t look a goose while launching at the local ramp.

HE was obviously still very new to reversing a trailer and his approach on the ramp was all wrong. He started reversing with the trailer offset too far to one side causing it to start jack-knifing. The driver wasn’t using his mirrors at all and the fact that he knew everyone was watching and waiting for him didn’t help his dilemma.

He was an (insert appropriate swear word) and everyone knew it! Not the poor bloke trying to reverse mind you, but the impatient, arrogant, meathead who sped in behind him while he was still trying to reverse, gave him a mouthful and sped back to put his boat in the water ahead of everyone else. Perhaps if I had a little more religious conviction the queue-jumper’s boat might have come flying off the trailer onto the middle of the ramp in front of everyone. Sadly, he launched his boat without a problem and took off. Myself and a couple of other blokes helped the first struggling bugger to launch his boat Ð of which he was very grateful. One of the others said: “No worries mate, but for %$#&%^ sake, get some practice before you try it again..” Not bad advice, albeit a little direct!

Practice makes perfect

So how do you practice when you don’t know exactly where to start? Reversing a trailer isn’t a skill we are born with and while some people are very quick to catch on, most of us need help. In this fairly basic piece, I hope you can glean a few ideas to help ensure your boat towing, launching and retrieval is as stress free as possible.

The first piece of advice is that when practising reversing you should know that a standard 6′ x 4′ box trailer is possibly the most difficult type to manoeuvre. This is mainly because the distance of the axle to the car is very short and it is often difficult to see any part of the trailer until it is already going the wrong way. Therefore, a box trailer may not be the best thing to practice with but if you can manage it you should be able to reverse anything.

Once you have a trailer to practice with, find a nice open area like an empty car park or open space. To start with you need to get an idea of your car and trailer’s combined turning circle. Larger vehicles, like my Nissan Navara, have a very large turning circle and knowing your rig’ s capabilities will prevent you “sandwiching” yourself in during a tight launching situation.

The basics

Now before you start reversing, you should go through some of the fundamentals. Ideally, you should try and learn to reverse using your vehicle mirrors rather than turning around to look where you’re going. I know there are plenty of people who are brilliant at reversing in this manner, but it can be really difficult to get a complete perspective of what’s going on if you are only looking out the back of your car Ð some vehicles have very restricted vision if you were to try and reverse this way. It can also make it very hard to reverse someone else’s vehicle when visibility is restricted. Mirrors are the best way to get the best view of what’s going on directly behind and on either side of the vehicle. Having said that, the mirrors on some older cars are next to useless so you may have to reverse by looking back. Just remember it can be a bad habit that’s hard to break.

Next, as much as possible, try and position the vehicle and trailer so your reversing path is as straight as possible. This usually means making a wide sweeping approach to the ramp so that you have room to straighten. Of course, not all ramps offer this so reversing around corners is something you will inevitably have to learn. An important thing to remember is that if the trailer is evenly slightly offline behind the car it will immediately start going out to one side once you start reversing; you can actually use this to your advantage but we’ll get into that a bit later.

On your approach you should keep an eye out for things that might cause a problem such as sign posts, trees or tree branches, gutters, coppers logs, potholes, etc. Give yourself plenty of room to avoid them.
Once you start moving back, check all available mirrors to ensure everything is clear. Take your time, move slowly and keep your steering wheel movements nice and smooth. Keep checking both of your wing mirrors.

Remember when you are using your mirrors, you have to steer the opposite way to how it appears in the reflection. Provided you become accustomed to using your mirrors you will get used to doing things the opposite way very quickly, with practice. If the trailer starts to go out to one side it often only requires a minor but smooth adjustment of the steering wheel in the opposite direction to bring it back. Should the trailer start to drift out to the starboard side a “left hand down” action on the steering wheel will bring it back. Obviously use “right hand down” should the trailer start heading out to port.

Many newcomers tend to “snatch” at the wheel when they see the trailer moving out to one side in a bid to make a fast correction. This tends to send the trailer too far out the other way. You then have a perpetual over-steering situation where you tend to snake down the ramp. Move slowly and remember that only minor adjustments will usually get the trailer to do what you want.

Big open boat ramps are excellent, but they aren’t everywhere. You will eventually have to manoeuvre the trailer around some kind of turn; parking your trailer will probably be the first time you will have to attempt it.

If you want the trailer to go to port (left) as you go back use a minor and smooth left-hand-down action on the steering wheel. As soon as the trailer starts going out to port you immediately need to begin a very minor right-hand-down action on the wheel to avoid jack-knifing. Obviously you would do the opposite to move the trailer to starboard. 
Don’t be afraid to go back a bit, make some corrections, then go forward and make some more corrections, go back again, etc. This is quite acceptable in tight situations or certainly while you are learning.

I’ve mentioned jack-knifing several times so I better explain what it is. This happens when the trailer goes so far to one side that it stops going backwards and locks into a 90-degree angle toward the towing vehicle. Almost always, if not stopped, this will damage the boat and/or the car. Reversing slowly and being aware of what you are doing will avoid jack-knifing.

Final tips

I’ll finish off with a couple of general reversing/trailering tips. When reversing at night, especially on wide ramps turn your headlights off and just leave your park lights on. This prevents blinding anyone else who might be trying to reverse or getting ready to reverse. Also make sure that you have either guide lights (that work) or reflectors on your trailer so that you can easily see your trailer at night when reversing.

If you are trying to position your car in a tight spot and you run out of forward room, a good tip to try and get the trailer in a more friendly position is to stop the car just short of as far as you can go, say two or three metres, then turn the steering wheel to full-lock in the opposite direction to the turn in the trailer. Slowly move your vehicle forward for those last few metres. The sharp change in direction over a short distance will reduce the angle difference between the car and trailer.

Lastly, when undoing tie-downs etc. in preparation to launch, ensure you do it away from the ramp. That way when your turn at the ramp comes you’ll be safe in the knowledge that you took your time to ensure everything is in readiness for a hassle-free launch. Happy boating.

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