Trouble free towing, launch and recovery

Top tips

When you buy a sportsboat or a RIB, your main concern is likely to be whether you can actually drive the thing without crashing into pontoons and other boats; navigate without getting lost, and deal with any mechanical issues that arise.

What many of us overlook is that, unless you are fortunate enough to own a waterside property, or pay for a regular mooring, you’re probably going to have to know a bit about towing too.

Not only do you have to tow your boat safely to a destination, but you also then have to back it down a slipway, generally with an audience eagerly awaiting catastrophe. But fear not, the RYA has a few handy pointers to help you tow safely, securely and confidently. 


Before you do anything, you’ll need to know whether you are legally allowed to tow. Requirements differ depending on when you passed your driving test. If you passed prior to 01 January 1997 you'll be entitled to drive any vehicle/trailer combination up to 8.25 tonnes.

After 1997 you can tow a trailer up to 750kg on a vehicle up to 3.5 tonnes. In addition to this, you can tow a trailer over 750Kg provided the weight of the trailer and load does not exceed the unladen weight of the towing vehicle.

Whenever you passed your test, you’re going to need at least third-party insurance cover for your trailer while towing.

Size matters

Various images for May issue of InBrief enewsletter

If you’re towing an oversize or overweight trailer, you’re breaking the law. A trailer drawn by an ordinary car must not exceed 7m in length excluding the hitching device. The combined length of vehicle and tow must not exceed 18 metres on vehicles built before 01 June 1998 and 18.75m on vehicles built after that date. In addition to this, a trailer must not exceed 2.3m in width. In terms of the boat itself, you will need to fit special markers if it projects more than 305mm from one or both sides of the towing vehicle.

There are also restrictions on weight: If you tow a small trailer without brakes, the weight of the trailer is limited to 50% of the kerb weight of the car or 750kg, whichever is less. When towing larger trailers that have brakes fitted, the weight of the trailer should not exceed 85% of the kerb weight of the towing vehicle as a rule of thumb.

Before leaving

Bear in mind that trailers often sit idle for ages and are then immersed in salt water before sitting idle again. It’s a recipe for rust and wheel bearings are always vulnerable.

Keep track of when the trailer was last serviced and leave nothing to chance. Check the ball hitch mechanism is working correctly and once you’ve hooked up the light board, make sure that it’s working correctly. Remember to attach the safety lanyard and also raise the jockey wheel.

Make sure everything is lashed down safely and, if there is an outboard on the back, make sure you have tilted it up and the propeller is covered. Once on the road, remember that the speed limit is 60mph if you’re towing. 

Preparing to launch

Various images for May issue of InBrief enewsletter 

You’ve managed to get your boat to the water, now you’ve got to get it in and out.

Much like towing, it’s fair to say, that launching can also be pretty stressful if you don’t know what you’re doing. Many of us will have witnessed some fairly unorthodox methods - the classic being unhitching the boat from car followed by the boat rolling uncontrollably down slipway.

This kind of thing really should be avoided at all costs so here are a few useful tips to ensure that launch and recovery are hitch free.


Careful preparation is the key in this situation; if you’re not confident with reversing a trailer, then perhaps consider practicing in your driveway or somewhere secluded before heading to the slipway. Ensure your tow vehicle will cope.

Check the local tide tables in advance to ensure you have enough water for launching and recovery, also look at the conditions on the water, will they make launching more difficult?


On arrival check out the slipway to ensure that your car will be able to handle the slope. Bear in mind that rear wheel drive cars can struggle on slippery ramps, while front wheel drives suffer from wheel spin if the weight of the trailer is excessive.

If you’ve been on a long trip, it’s worth bearing in mind that immersing hot wheel bearings may create a vacuum as the bearings rapidly cool, this draws in water and washes out the grease from the bearings. If this is the case, allow time for them to cool.

Before you launch the boat, ensure that you have removed the light board, loaded your boat up with the relevant supplies and, most importantly, inserted the bungs, you’d be amazed how often people forget! At this point, you’re ready to go.

5,4,3,2,1… Launch

The rear of the boat needs to float so that it can be reversed or pushed off the trailer. Car wheels are best kept well away from seawater.

Reverse down the slipway then push the boat off the trailer or hop into the boat and reverse it away.

If the gradient of the slipway is shallow which prevents you launching with the trailer attached to the car, use a rope or metal extension bar to enable the trailer to be reversed further into the water. This can be achieved by the following method:

  • At the top of the slipway, lower the jockey wheel and put the handbrake on
  • Chock the trailer wheels 
  • Connect a long line between the trailer and the tow hook using bowlines
  • Disconnect the trailer
  • Drive the car forwards to take up the slack in the line. Remove the handbrake and the chocks and slowly reverse down the slipway while an assistant keeps the trailer in line
  • To avoid the boat sliding off the trailer when backing down the slipway; ensure the winch strap remains attached to the boat along with an additional safety chain or line between the boat and trailer


Various images for May issue of InBrief enewsletter

There are a number of different options here, but it always helps to have two people. In some cases, it may be best to stop the boat at the slip, and back the trailer into the water and manoeuvre it on by hand. Otherwise you may have to drive the boat on to the trailer. This is particularly useful when you are dealing with a steep slipway.

Driving onto a trailer

This calls for a bit of finesse and precision. You’ll need to ensure that the trailer is submerged so that there is enough depth to get your boat on to it and then trim your engine up to the point where the prop will not ground.

Drive on to the trailer ensuring you have just enough speed for steerage. When the boat is on the trailer, either attach the winch strap to the forward D-ring or lash a line from the boat to the trailer.

From here you can generally get it properly lined up on the trailer with a bit of fiddling about and usually you can use the trailer winch to get the boat fully pulled up and you’re on your way.

So there you have it; stress free towing, launch and recovery. With a little care and thought, you can ensure that the main excitement when you go boating is out on the water!

Want to know more?

The two-day RYA Powerboat Level 2 course is a perfect introduction to the skills and background knowledge needed to drive a powerboat safely and with confidence, including launching and recovery. For more information about the course and to find an RYA recognised training centre near you, visit