Yachtswoman Genevieve Leaper gets a memorable lesson in how to launch a trailer sailer...


George was helping to launch his friend’s boat and asked if Paul and I could give them a hand. My friend George knows nothing about boats, his involvement was as driver of the tow vehicle, being the owner of a suitably powerful 4×4.

When we duly turned up at the harbour the next Sunday it soon became apparent that the owner didn’t know much about boats either. I got an uncomfortable feeling that we had been appointed the ‘experts’ who would know how to launch a boat.

The thing is, we know how to sail boats; neither Paul nor I had any experience of launching a boat from a road trailer. For me, launching involved either wheeling our Fireball dinghy down the beach or watching anxiously from a distance as the family cruising yacht dangled from a large boatyard crane. At least it wasn’t me who had to reverse down the slipway.

The boat herself looked good – although a Jaguar 23 was a little larger than I was expecting, the moorings at Stonehaven being mostly populated by Drascombes.

Article continues below…

Raising the mast

The first problem was the mast. How were we supposed to get it up? The owner did not know. Again, in my experience, a mast was either lifted in by hand or there was a crane to do it.

After some deliberation we remembered there was a pulley on the front of the yacht club shed. So that meant some more manoeuvring for George, not to mention manhandling the trailer to get the bows up to the shed.

The launch had sensibly been planned for high tide, when the water reaches the slipway, but by the time the mast was up and the rigging sorted, the tide was going out. At low tide the middle harbour in Stonehaven dries almost completely but there was still enough water.


Failed launch attempt

Unfortunately, as the water recedes it leaves the sand at the top of the beach somewhat fluid, with a consistency not unlike very wet cement. We should have known, having struggled to pull the Fireball trolley through it often enough.

Inevitably the vehicle got bogged in the sand, wheels spinning, with the trailer barely axle-deep in the water. By then our antics had attracted the attention of some of our dinghy sailing friends; just as well, we needed all the help we could get to push the car back up.

The obvious plan was to come back the next day before high water, and try again while the sand was still firm. The only snag was that the owner, unlike us retired and self-employed types, had to go to work. We found ourselves volunteering to launch the boat in his absence.


Stonehaven Harbour’s summer moorings were mostly populated with Drascombes

On the rising tide, driving down the beach was no problem and the launch went smoothly. In fact the boat was afloat almost too quickly. One minute I was watching approvingly as George eased the trailer into the water as if he’d been launching boats for years, the next I was scrambling aboard in a hurry as I realised it was our turn to show our expertise.

We had been so preoccupied with the business of launching that we had not given much thought to what happened next. It was only about 50m to the boat’s designated mooring but she wouldn’t get there by herself.

Obviously we would not be lowering the lifting keel in the shallow harbour so there was no need to know how it operated. What I hadn’t properly considered was that a boat with a lifting keel must also have a lifting rudder. Unlike dinghy rudders which swing up to horizontal, maintaining some steering ability, this one seemed to be all or nothing.


Never mind, the outboard swivelled, I could steer with that. The outboard started straight away and the boat slid happily off the trailer. The trouble was I had to hang over the transom to hold the outboard tiller, with an even longer reach to the gear lever – so even glancing forward was impossible.

It was fine going astern but going forwards I might as well have been blindfolded. Luckily, there was no wind and the harbour was quiet early in the season. Somehow, with Paul shouting instructions from the foredeck, we made it to the mooring without getting tangled in any other mooring lines.

I realised far too late that this was not a clever thing to be doing. I might be facing the wrong way and not even holding the tiller, but technically I was at the helm, and therefore responsible if anything went wrong.

If we had been asked initially to launch an unknown one-and-a-half-tonne yacht without the owner present I would never have even considered getting involved! Once the boat was well secured, I breathed a sigh of relief and finally looked up – to see the harbour master standing on the quayside, with his arms folded and an unreadable expression.

He had clearly observed the whole procedure, but didn’t say anything – which was almost worse. I wanted to explain “… not my boat, just helping a friend of a friend, we’re quite experienced sailors really…”

Later I came to know harbour master Jim quite well and heard a few of his opinions regarding the competence of some harbour users – I could only hope he never recognised me as the idiot with the Jaguar.

At the time, even if the harbour master was unimpressed, I thought we’d done quite well, all things considered. I was rather hoping we might be invited for a sail – sailing is something we do know how to do. But we never heard from the owner again and I don’t think the boat was much used, a shame as she looked like a fun little boat.

Why not subscribe today?

This feature appeared in the July 2023 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.

Subscribe, or make a gift for someone else, and you’ll always save at least 30% compared to newsstand prices.

See the latest PBO subscription deals on