Alice Driscoll recalls driving and towing a 10m-long car and trailer combo carrying a J24 keelboat, 1,000 miles home from Lake Garda…
The J24 World Championships in Italy were coming to an end and talk turned to the journey home. We’d originally flown in while another of the team towed the boat to Italy, and now it was our turn to tow the boat back to Britain.
It was time to make my confession. “If I don’t have my driver’s licence with me, then I can’t help with the driving, can I?” I said.
My husband looked astounded. “But,” he spluttered, “you researched everything we needed to tow through Europe, and sorted the paperwork out, what do you mean you don’t have your licence?”
Grudgingly he accepted that amid all the event preparations I’d forgotten it and now he was the only person qualified to drive. I’ve been towing dinghies for years but my boat is just 13ft long and I can unhitch the trailer and move the boat by hand if necessary.
And there’s always a reliable rescue service at the end of the phone. So driving 1,000 miles towing a J24 keelboat, which weighs 1500kg and sits 4m high – is an entirely different challenge.
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We had to drive the J24 back from Riva del Garda, a beautiful Italian town located at the most north-western point of Lake Garda. Famous for its regattas, the location had attracted a massive 89-strong fleet from all over the world.
It’s clear that route planning was high on the ‘what to get right’ list. On the way to the event, several teams had struggled. One team travelled through France and into Italy via the Mont Blanc tunnel. Unable to turn back, they were stung by a massive toll.
Another mistake had been taking a shortcut up the western side of Lake Garda, rather than the longer route via the motorway. The road narrows through a series of tunnels hewn through Garda’s towering cliffs, and it’s a stressful final approach.
With the J24s having taken up the whole road, forcing oncoming vehicles to reverse, the boats only just avoided being scraped against the rock face. With our Calais to Dover ferry booked for 1115 on Sunday, we didn’t have time to loiter after the championships finish.
“Let’s set off Friday night and stop to sleep after a few hours’ driving,” I suggested. Ian Jubb, who specialises in delivering racing boats to venues all round Europe, looked concerned. “I wouldn’t risk sleeping overnight anywhere in Italy,” he advised. “It’s safer to stop overnight until you get to Switzerland or France.”
Prior to setting off, we’d researched the legalities of towing through mainland Europe. Traffic police have the power to enforce credit card fines for irregularities, and unless you’re fluent in the local language, it’s hard to argue back.
So we’d made sure we were prepared for each country we were going to travel through. For example, in Germany trailer tyres including the spare have to be less than six years old.
We had 100km/h and GB stickers, headlight converters, spare lightbulbs, breathalysers, high visibility vests, first aid kit and warning triangles. The trailer had been fully serviced, with the boat trailer bearings well greased to prevent overheating, and dust caps fitted.
We also brought spare dust cap covers, a floor jack for the trailer and all the paperwork including vehicle insurance paperwork, V5C registration certificate, driver’s licences, and ID.
The aim was to travel in a two-boat convoy with four drivers, enabling us to drive almost constantly for 24 hours. That was before I forgot my driver’s licence, and we realised that the other co-driver, Lorna, was too young!
At the time, anyone who gained their driving licence after 1997 was required to pass an additional trailer test, so that left just Johnny and Austen as drivers.
“Don’t worry, we’ll feed you with lots of coffee and do all the navigating,” we reassured them. “It’ll be fine.”
It wasn’t like we were going to be inconspicuous on the roads. A J24 keelboat doesn’t look that big on the water, but, sat on a road trailer, it becomes a giant.
It’s both tall and wide. Too wide in fact. The majority of European countries have a maximum 2.55m trailer width, and a J24’s beam is 2.71m.
This is legal in the UK, as you’re allowed an overhang of 305mm on either side. But that’s not the case in Italy, where the fleet use tilting trailers to keep the width within 2.55m.
Because our journey originated in a country where the additional width is legal, we’d been assured we would be classed as legal elsewhere in Europe. However, as several J24 sailors have been fined by Italian police in the past, many people opted to buy tilting trailers.
We also needed to be confident that our towing vehicle was robust enough for the job. You are not allowed to exceed the manufacturer’s recommended towing limit listed on the Vehicle Indication Number (VIN) plate on the chassis and in the handbook.
A general rule is that the weight of your trailer and load should not exceed 85% of the kerb weight of the vehicle. As our vans – a VW Transporter and Mercedes – didn’t have room for sleeping in, the plan was to bed down in the boats.
After the warnings about theft in Italy, we made the decision to leave early on Saturday morning and get to Switzerland or France before nightfall. With the boat secured on the trailer, red and white striped overhang marker board attached, TomTom GPS on the dashboard, and route plugged into our mobile phones, we set off.
It’s a short drive over the hills on the eastern side of Lake Garda onto the motorway and the kilometres clicked by. A couple of hours past Milan, the lead car called to say they wanted to pull off the motorway, the attraction being a McDonalds.
We drove down the slip road to a roundabout, with a small service road leading to a Lidl supermarket on one side and the holy grail on the other. With no room to park in McDonalds, we swung into Lidl’s car park much to the bemusement of the Saturday shoppers.
A coffee and burger later, we were ready to go. Leaving the car park proved to be trickier! The narrow exit had a barrier, and the turning circle of the van and boat meant we couldn’t turn left, so we were forced to turn right, bumping over the central reservation and causing a minor blockage to incoming shoppers.
A short drive up the service road to a fortunately placed roundabout got us back on track. As we passed through the toll station back onto the motorway, we decided not to go ‘off piste’ again. It was just too stressful.
We sped on until an unexpected traffic queue slowed us down. Fortunately, the bottleneck was the border crossing into Switzerland. We sighed with relief. First stage done.
Our TomTom perked up on the dashboard. “Alternative route found – this will save you 55 minutes”. A quick glance at the maps on our phones didn’t show any issues, but the TomTom was insistent. “Take the next exit” it demanded.
We complied and went off the motorway to a roundabout. “Take the third exit” TomTom insisted. The road headed uphill, through a small town and out into the countryside.
I called the others to explain what we had done, just as our phone maps started to flash with traffic warnings on the motorway. “Too late,” said Lorna “We missed that turn and we’re in the jam”.
Feeling smug, we agreed to meet at the motorway services by the San Gotthard tunnel. We relaxed. Big mistake. The wide roads narrowed, as we headed out into the countryside.
“I hope this isn’t a mistake’” said Johnny, looking at the worried expressions of drivers coming towards us. “Bit late now,” I replied, as we approached Rancate, a tiny hilltop village.
We drove slowly into the village square, causing the old men outside the local cafe to choke on their coffees. The only exit from the square was a tight right angled turn, narrowed by the village statue. “I don’t think we’re going to make this,” muttered Johnny.
With a string of cars on either side of us, I jumped out and watched each corner of the boat as the bulbous beam and stanchions inched past the houses lining the road. Johnny was not amused. We were taking up the whole of the road, causing grumpy looking farmers to back up to let us past.
As we departed the village, we descended past fields of grapevines. Startled workers looked up as they heard the clatter of the trailer, a strange vision of a boat gliding through the fields.
‘We relaxed. Big mistake. Roads narrowed as we headed into the countryside’
Suddenly out of nowhere, a tiny black Fiat Cinquecento roared around the corner, the driver oblivious of our presence. Just as I thought he was going to drive into our bonnet, he looked up to see the bow of a J24 boat looming over him.
He braked, wrenching the wheel to the right, and the car jumped into the verge. We tried hard not to laugh as he gesticulated wildly at us; the universal language clearly understood! “I’m never trusting that TomTom again,” muttered Johnny.
The road eventually led into an industrial estate and soon we were down at the edge of the massive Lake Lugano, where the road criss-crossed under the motorway, which was heaving with slow-moving traffic.
TomTom was forgiven, but it was a salutatory warning to stick on the main roads. Our hair-raising diversion gained us at least an hour, so after a break at the San Gotthard service station for Johnny to get his heart rate back to normal, we were rejoined by Austen and Lorna and set off past Lucerne towards Basel and the French border.
Our Mercedes was guzzling fuel, so we were forced to fill up in Switzerland where the prices were high. Austen, on the other hand, was determined to get into France before stopping. His spare fuel can made an appearance in a layby just before the French border, adding another hour to the clock.
It was now 2000 and the support crew – I won’t call us navigators – were eager for a decent meal and bed. But the drivers were high on coffee and we pressed on.
After our experience coming off the motorway, we were nervous when Lorna called to say she had found a shortcut which avoided a loop round Strasbourg. We pulled off and paid our motorway tolls. It was surprisingly expensive and I realised the unmanned toll had classed us as a Class 4 HGV.
In schoolgirl French I spoke into the speaker, trying to explain that we were in fact a class 2 with a trailer. The machine recalculated and reduced the toll significantly. This happened throughout the trip, and a quick press on the button, saying “nous sommes classe deux, pas classe quatre” saved us a fortune.
There was a beautiful sunset as we drove through medieval villages in the Bas Rhine region, following signs for the Alsace wine trails. The roads were wide and without incident, and we rejoined the E35. Finally, it was time for an overnight stop. We found a service station but the restaurant was closed.
Austen had pasta in his van, so after buying ham, cheese and salami from the petrol station, he fired up the camping stove in the back of his VW and made supper for us all.
To the bemusement of other travellers we sat on the boat trailers eating dinner and drinking tea. With no space in our van, we climbed aboard the boat with our sleeping bags, hauled the ladder up behind us, closed the hatch and snuggled down. It had been a long day.
It wasn’t the best night’s sleep – there was something disconcerting about being in a boat, on dry land in a service station. We got some funny looks as we descended from the boat at 0700 for a quick croissant and coffee before setting off for Calais.
We were relieved to have made it this far without incident and were on our last leg. However, there were still 250 miles to go, and the sat nav showed that we wouldn’t make the 1115 ferry.
A phone call to the ferry booking company did not bring good news. It was the last weekend of the school summer holidays and the ferries were fully booked. “You’re a very long load,” the booking clerk explained. “We’ll do our best but the first option now is the 0105 Monday morning sailing.”
I’d have liked to have done some wine shopping but we’d been warned not to stop too close to the ferry because of the danger of illegal immigrants climbing into the boat; something which did happen to another J24 on the way home.
There was chaos at the ferry terminal, and we made the most of our size to block the traffic while we barged across the lanes to reach the correct check-in desk. Luckily, we only had to wait 90 minutes before being given a slot on a ferry, nestling in among the HGV vehicles.
Docking at Dover, it was a relief to be through mainland Europe, especially for Johnny, who was very happy to hand over the wheel to me for the remainder of the journey.
On the M25, I stuck to the inside lane and avoided overtaking. Looking in the wing mirror, it was noticeable how many cars hung back, finding it intimidating to overtake because of the size and overhang of the boat.
Eventually, after 36 hours of travelling and almost 1,000 miles of roads, we pulled up in our tiny Somerset hamlet. “I think the neighbours will notice we’re back,” I said, noticing all the tractors and horse boxes, but no boats.
After a refreshing night’s sleep, the final 30-mile trip was to deliver the J24 to a storage barn near our sailing club at Cheddar.
We took the lane out of the village and onto our usual route across the Levels. “Oh goodness,” I said, thinking of the restricted lanes and tiny villages ahead. “I think we’d better go via the motorway. It would be really silly to get stuck somewhere now.”
Boat towing regulations
Are you legally allowed to tow? Last year, the UK Department for Transport (DfT) introduced new rules for towing a trailer with a car, enabling drivers who passed their driving test from 1 January 1997 to tow trailers up to 3,500kg Maximum Authorised Mass (MAM) without the need to pass a car and trailer towing test.
MAM is the weight of the trailer including the maximum load that can be carried safely when it’s being used on the road. Most cars have a maximum weight they can tow. This may be listed in the handbook or the vehicle’s ‘gross train weight’ may be recorded on the vehicle identification number (VIN) plate on the car.
The gross train weight is the weight of the fully-loaded car plus fully-loaded trailer and must not be exceeded. If a gross train weight is not recorded, you should not use your vehicle for towing. You will need at least third-party insurance cover for your trailer while towing.
All drivers of vehicles heading to Europe will need to apply for and obtain a green card – proof that your vehicle is insured to the minimum level of third-party property and personal injury cover that is required for countries which participate in the green card system.
You must display a UK sticker on your car. A GB sticker, Union flag, Euro symbol or a national flag are not acceptable.
Finally, if you have not towed abroad since the end of 2020 you should read the RYA advice about the paperwork, entry and exit formalities at rya.org.uk Find more advice at:
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This feature appeared in the Summer 2022 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.
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