by Peter Fullarton •
I have spent many years as a commercial fisherman in a state-wide fishery operating and launching small boats up to 7m from many beaches around the state of Western Australia. Nowadays, I reside in Lancelin. As a recreational fisher, I see a lot of visitors who are used to launching on concrete boat ramps getting into all sorts of trouble while launching off the unfamiliar beach. A few simple things to keep in mind may help you to prevent getting bogged in the ocean and a car full of sea water.
The first thing to consider will be the tide and conditions. In Lancelin, and many other locations, the height of the tide greatly effects how much wave energy there is over the outer reef and to the beach. This is something to consider if leaving on a low tide in the morning, as when you return later there may be a lot more swell surge at the beach at a higher tide and a strong sea breeze.
In more northern parts of our state, the large tides up to 10m can create further problems. You need to be totally aware how much water will be at the launching site when you return to the beach. Karratha back beach boat ramp is a classic example, where you have a nice concrete boat ramp, but once the tide is out, it can be more than a km of soft sand and mud to the sea. Broome is also a renowned place for people to be caught out by being too late to return to the beach. Spending 6 hours in a boat stuck in mud at night being eaten alive by sand-flies is never a fun thing to do. Remember, if the tides are going to be coming in while you are out fishing, park your trailer at the top of the beach above the high water line.
The right vehicle
Before beach launching and retrieving, always have the car engaged in 4WD. It may be too late to use 4WD once you spin the wheels in 2WD and start to dig in. If you spin your tyres above the water line you will only bog a little. Do it below the waterline and the disturbed sand can liquefy to quicksand and you sink very quickly into a hopeless situation that is almost impossible to drive out of. In this situation, the only way out is with assistance of a winch or tow. It is not about accelerating or power, so drive quietly in low range so as to not spin the wheels and disturb the sand, creating the quicksand effect.
When launching or retrieving, before driving out of the water always reverse the car downhill towards the water a little to push the boat trailer wheels out of the holes they have sunk into before you attempt to drag the trailer forwards. Don’t forget this, as it is very important! Many people needlessly get bogged for this reason alone.
Launching is the easy side of the operation, as you are only pulling out an empty trailer. Still, some people can get into trouble. Have your trailer set up right so the boat will easily slide off quickly and you are not spending a prolonged time in the surge. Done quickly you can offload the boat between the waves peaking. If you go out too far and drop the trailer wheels over a drop off, even on a calm day, it will make it difficult to drive back out. Best to only go as little a distance out as required and not a good idea to back right out to try and drive the boat off the trailer.
Always have the motor fully tilted up. If it is calm, back just far enough out to push the boat off the trailer into adequate depth of water. Don’t worry if the boat transom hits a sandy bottom, leaving the boat half off the trailer, you can just drive the trailer out from under the boat.
If there is a bit of swell things become more complex. Even a small of 50cm wave can push 15-20m up the beach between each swell. It’s best to have at least one helper launching in swell, you need to time the attempt to get down the beach and back between the peak of each wave. Have the boat winch and chain disconnected with your buddy holding a bow rope. Wait until there is a lull in the size of the wave sets, then, as the wave surge peaks, start reversing the car following the water out.
When the boat is in enough water, hit the brakes so the boat slides off at the same time selection forward gear and accelerating (gently!) back up the beach away from the next breaking wave. The helper needs to turn the boat to get the bow pointing into the waves quickly as possible. If you don’t time it right the 4WD can be swamped by the following wave. You need to park the car and get back to help ASAP, as the boat will be difficult to handle solo. Keep the boat’s nose into the surf lowering the motor so the propeller is submerged and push out as far as you can before starting off.
Make sure everyone is on board and clear of the propeller before putting the engine into gear. With smaller boats and dinghy’s it is much easier to just dump the boat in the wave zone, rather than back all the way out into the water. Drag the nose around quickly into the waves and float it out on the next set of waves.
There comes a time when discretion is better than valour. Know your limitations and cancel the day if you are concerned the swell is too big. You are the skipper, and the vessel and every ones safety is your responsibility.
Retrieving becomes much more difficult, with the extra weight of the boat on the trailer. Most commonly when I see people getting into trouble, it is when they are trying to drive the boat onto the trailer, rather than use the trailers’ winch. The beach generally has a less steep angle than a concrete ramp, so both the car and trailer must back out well into the sea to get enough water depth at the back of the trailer for the motor to drive the boat on.
The beach is also open to the wind and swell. This adds an extra level of difficulty in that it can take some time to get the boat lined up right. Meanwhile, the swells can be bouncing the boat off the rollers or push it out of line with the trailer, all the while the trailer and car wheels are settling into the sand and this is going to make moving your rig more difficult without bogging.
At Lancelin, most locals with larger boats will use a tractor for drive off and on launching, not a 4WD. Most would still retrieve the boat by winching the boat up as they drive under it from the shore elevating the three-point linkage at the start to get under the boats’ nose. Even then, plenty of tractors still manage to get bogged when the swell is running.
If you insist on drive on or off launching with a conventional 4WD, make sure to have a second 4WD above the waterline hooked up to pull the primary one with a strap or winch, so both are pulling as the boat is retrieved.
When using a 4WD, the best method is to bring the boat to the shore nose first, the engine must fully tilted up so it won’t dig into the sand as the boat is winched. Back your trailer up to the boat, then slowly reverse the car under the boat while simultaneously winching the boat onto the trailer. The car and trailer should be kept moving for most of it so they don’t sink into the sand, and the load is lessened on both the winch and trailer. Unless the swell is running high, only the car’s rear wheels should be below the water’s edge by the time the boat is retrieved. Be as quick as possible to get the boat on and drive out, and as soon as it looks like you’re getting into trouble, don’t hesitate, just push the boat back off and try again.
Tips and accessories
A number of experienced local Lancelin people will dig the engine into the sand to keep the back of the boat stable and nose pointing forward while they retrieve the 4WD. To achieve a solo retrieval of the boat in difficult conditions, the engine must be lifted once hooked up to the trailer and winching starts.
If you do have a big heavy boat, consider the use of a set of traction mats under the rear wheels of the 4WD and lowering tyre pressures to 15psi.
If you do happen to get stuck, the best option is to find someone to pull you out rather than keep making futile efforts while you sink further, making recovery difficult and sitting the car lower into the water so it can ingress to the cars’ interior.
A good idea is to have a short strong rope with a hook attached to the trailer so when you return to the beach and the swell is pushing a long way up, you can use the rope to drag the boat up onto the sand away from the breaking waves before using the method as described above.
Trailers may be set up with a ‘tow hitch extension bar’. There are different types; they may fold out from the side or slide through the centre of the trailer, but effectively they extend the distance between the car and boat, reducing how far the 4WD backs into the sea. Most are not more than 2m, and not a solution in themselves, but a further bit of help.
Another option is to use a drop down dolly wheel. It is a spare wheel holder at the front of the trailer; the spare sits on a drop down bracket with a complete wheel hub assembly. These are great for traveling, as you have a spare bearing, hub and tyre should you get into trouble on the highway. The method is to put the spare wheel into the lowered position, allowing the trailer to run on all three wheels. Attach a strong rope or strap between the car and trailer. The trailer is then pushed out by hand and the boat winched on while the 4WD remains on dry land. The trailer and boat is then pulled out of the water before re-attaching to the 4WD. They are effective, as in the 4WD and trailer can be as far apart as the rope is long, so the 4WD should be in no danger of bogging in the sea.
Be careful when using these launching, as the trailer will jump up at the front as the boat weight passes the wheels. In the initial stages of retrieving while the boats weight is behind the wheels, the trailer will stand up at the front making it difficult to reach a winch. Dolly wheels can be very handy when the shore is muddy or on steep river banks, where it is not possible to have the 4WD close to the water.
Beach launching puts lots of strain on the equipment, so trailers need to be sturdy to take the weight of the boat. Unlike boat ramps, the boat is not floating on top to the trailer. It will receive the full weight of the boat through the trailer chassis as it comes up and off the beach. Any weaknesses in the winch, winch cable, winch post and trailer will be tested to breaking point. Make sure to keep everyone clear of the rear of the boat and winch cable, if something breaks someone may get hurt as the boat slides back or the cable recoils.
Low slung trailers work best, as they help reduce the loads of lifting a boat off the beach and work better in shallow water. If you’re doing this type of launching often, look at modifying the trailer to remove rollers for skid plates to make the boat sit lower on the trailer. Remote operated electric winches allow the driver to back under the boat while winching at the same time, or one person can be aligning the nose of the boat with the trailer while operating the winch.
If you get back to shore and it is rough and windy, the boat must be controlled or brought onto the beach. Don’t leave a single person trying to control a heavy boat in a strong surge while you go get the car. It is possible the boat will be washed ashore side on where the surf can fill the boat with water and sand making it next to impossible to retrieve. Bring the boat in with both people nose first and let the waves push it onto the beach, then have the one person keep the nose pointing towards the beach.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, as often you will find plenty of willing volunteers. When there is a lot of surge or strong wind, be very cautious. Don’t get caught between a boat and trailer or have the boat wash over someone in the shallows. The force of the sea pushing the boat is immense and broken bones can easily happen. Keep a close eye on any children or elderly helping, as they may not be strong or quick enough to stop a boat washing over them. Make clear instructions to everyone about the risks and watch what they are doing. Everyone’s safety must be your priority.
Be cautious when driving a boat into the beach with breaking waves. Avoid having waves overtaking the boat, breaking over the transom or breaching the boat in the surf zone. Watch the swells and wait for a smaller set of waves. Drive the boat immediately behind the crest of a smaller wave trimming the motor up as the water shallows. Once the motor is bottoming out, the surging water should continue to push the boat onto the beach as you kill the engine and lift the motor out the water.
If unsure, watch some people with a similar rig to yours first and see how they go about it. Experience counts a lot and some people will make it look much easier than it is! Have a chat to them about the conditions and take any advice on board.
Seawater is not kind to 4WDs. If you do dunk the car in the sea, wash the underside with fresh water very well. Brakes should be given special attention, as they don’t like the salt, so it is advisable not to park up the car with hand brake on for an extended time until it is all dried out or it may rust into the on position!
There you have it, a nice little guide to give you confidence launching and retrieving on the beach. Stay safe,