How to beach launch a boat
Across Australia there are many places where the beach is the only suitable location for launching a boat. Unlike a boat ramp, beach launching can be quite challenging, and so many boaters would never consider getting onto the water in this way. Of course, these areas are often less frequented by boaters, so they can produce some spectacular fishing.
Basic beach launching
Beach conditions can vary enormously. Sand can be slightly undulating and hard, or steep and soft. Wind and seas can be calm and glassy, or strong with significant swell, while tides can vary from less than 2m exchanges to massive 8m tidal movements.
While there are many variables when it comes to beach launching, the one common theme is that many people come unstuck (or stuck, as is often the case) when attempting to launch or retrieve their boat from these sandy domains.
There are many different trailer, boat and vehicle combinations suited for the task, and there are a matching number of systems and techniques. The system I am about to describe is known as the jockey wheel system, and it works well on the swell-savaged coastline of south-eastern Australia.
Setup and launching
The ultimate launch vehicle is a dedicated 4WD tractor. These are used by many regional fishing clubs and launch clubs to launch conventionally set-up boats and their trailers from beach locations. Unfortunately, the average person doesn’t have the luxury of a tractor, so this story is primarily about beach launching with registered 4WDs.
A hub and wheel bearing assembly is mounted on the drawbar of the trailer so that the trailer can be detached from the vehicle and rolled into the water. The lower the first roller is mounted at the rear of the trailer, the easier it is to winch the boat onto the trailer when it’s not attached to a vehicle. A 20-30m rope attaches to the trailer to pull it from the water so as not to drench the vehicle in saltwater.
It’s important to remember that launching should only be attempted from areas widely recognised as suitable for the task. These are generally protected extremities of beaches that are sheltered by protruding headlands that take the main brunt of the prevailing sea and wind conditions. Ask the locals if you’re unsure.
Once you’re ready, use the following steps as a guide.
1: Check the tide and swell
The bottom and particularly the top of the tide can be problematic. At high tide you have little beach to work with, and you’re often working in soft sand. This is less of an issue with launching, but retrieval can be difficult. If there’s a swell, waves can break on the transom on dead-high tide. Low tide can also be tricky, since the boat could get stuck on a sandbar.
How do you overcome these problems? By making sure there’s sufficient water and beach for you to safely launch and retrieve. In other words, plan your start and finish times. Also, check the conditions. Launching from a beach with excessive swell is pure stupidity, so if you’re in doubt, don’t go out.
2: Check the beach conditions
A bit of inside knowledge can help immensely — so talk to a local! Hidden rocks and reef often lurk just under the surface, so it’s worth having a walk in the surf to check things out. It’s all about making yourself familiar with the immediate terrain — both above and below the waterline.
3: Don’t park in the wash zone
The next step is to drive the trailer just above where the surge will wash to at the top of the tide. Even one or two washes around the wheels of the trailer will cause it to sink into the sand, with the result that you won’t be able to move. Many boaters get badly bogged for this very reason, even on hard and well-packed beach sand.
4: Talk to the crew
You should ensure that everyone (especially newcomers) understands what’s about to occur if you’re using the jockey wheel system described above.
When you’re ready, unhitch the safety chain and electrics and lift the boat (often a two-man job) off the towball.
5: Ready to launch
Once your boat and trailer rig are free from the tow vehicle, attach a rope between the towball and the front of the trailer. It should be long enough to get the boat to a sufficient depth of water to launch. Your trailer should roll backward with the natural slope of the beach. Once it takes up the slack in the rope, the trailer will stop and the momentum should allow the boat to unload.
Note that having your rollers in good working order helps immensely. If the trailer does not roll easily, then some manpower should be employed to push the rig to the desired depth, and then semi-float the boat off the trailer.
Once the boat is off the trailer it’s best to immediately spin it around so the bow faces any incoming waves. One or two people will need to hold the boat in this position until the trailer is parked.
6: Trailer retrieval
Now drive the vehicle forward, pulling the trailer out of the water with the attached rope. Coil the rope up before reversing the vehicle so that the trailer can be set back onto the towball. Then, drive clear of the launch area and park somewhere out of the way of beach users and the high tide.
7: Motoring away from the beach
Once back at the boat, trim the engine up to a point where you retain control, but are unlikely to hit the prop or skeg on sand, rocks or submerged objects. Your helpers should keep the nose pointing into the swell at all times.
Then wait for a lull in the surf, ensure everyone has hoisted themselves safely into the boat, and go for it. A lot of this system comes down to experience and understanding the surf, although years of surfing and reading a beach can only help.
Finally, be sure to trim the motor down as soon as you’re deep enough to get onto the plane safely. The quicker you get going the better. On a poor day it’s worth getting your boating companions to walk the boat out to where the engine can be trimmed fully down so that you’re not tackling waves with a half-trimmed engine. Then they can simply pile in and go when a break in the waves allows.
This is where a wetsuit is beneficial, since it keeps you warm and helps stop you and the crew from worrying about getting wet. Beach launching will get you wet — be prepared for it — but it’s a small price to pay for great access to relatively virgin waters!
Originally published in TrailerBoat #257, June 2010.