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  • Keith Newman

Bobbing boat trailers at Clifton

“There were plenty of chipped hulls, dunged props and even rudders, occasional injuries and a whole lot of wet bums. There had to be a better way. So local boaties put their thinking caps on,” says Clifton Marine Club member Neville Bawden. Clifton Marine Club, Hawke’s Bay Today, 31 October 2013

Although reasonably protected from the south and west, getting boats out from Clifton Beach is highly dependent on weather and surf conditions and for many years locals and visitors put up with chipped hulls, dunged props and bent rudders.

Today, at the height of the fishing season observers are often amused and confused to see dozens of boat trailers bobbing about in the sea. What they’re seeing is a classic case of Kiwi innovation that solved the perennial problem of launching boats in the choppy, steep, gravelly foreshore.

In its early years the Clifton Marine Club consisted of some heavy winches, an old caravan as a radio shack, and gravel ramp to allow boats and their trailers to get down onto the beach so they could be surf launched. Boat retrieval initially involved pulling the boats up the beach with winches on inflatable boat rollers then loading them on their trailers, after which the winches were used again to pull the rigs up the ramp to the flat area at the top of the beach.

Long-time club member Neville Bawden says this limited the size of the boats that could be launched and retrieved, restricting access to more distant fishing spots where the fish were bigger and more numerous. A further impediment was the fact that anything more than moderate surf conditions made it impossible to launch. Even on relatively calm days it required “a full speed-ahead and whip up the outboard at the last second exercise” with propeller damage and chipped hulls often the result. Inboard motors were only of use on very calm days and had to be floated off their trailers at the water’s edge with the stern in the water.

Two boats & their crews sitting on the beach pre-launch
Clifton Marine Club boats & crews, 1965

There used to be so many trailers jammed up on the beach when the club was in its heyday that if you were first back in you’d have to shift 40 of them to get to yours, says Bawden. When the comment was made it’s a pity we didn’t have more room, he says someone piped up “well there’s plenty of room out there”.

Whether that was the beginning of the idea or not, it is certainly part of the legend that has evolved around the floating trailers. They began to be developed around 1966 by regular Clifton camper and fisherman Fred Hickey, a mechanic inspired by an article about floating docks in an old issue of Popular Mechanics.

He came up with the idea of having larger wheels on the boat trailer with a cradle and polystyrene floats so it could be ‘parked’ and anchored 200 metres out to sea. When the boat returned to its cradle after a day’s fishing it could be winched ashore. At first many of the locals thought he was crazy. He converted his own rig and it proved so successful that within a few years nearly every boat in the Clifton Marine Club had converted to the system.

Writer Sam Mossman, one of those who regularly launched his boat in this manner said in a 1994 article in NZ Fishing magazine, the innovation continued to cause a stir among visiting boaties. “The boat is strapped into the trailer at bow and stern and the whole rig is pushed into the sea. The engine is started and used to drive the rig to the offshore trailer park. There the trailer is anchored, the boat detached and driven off the trailer.”

At the end of the fishing trip the sequence is followed in reverse with the whole rig pulled up the beach slope using the club’s winches. “Naturally some modifications to the trailer are necessary…fixed dual wheels replace the usual jockey wheel mounted on a cam so they can be swung out of the way for towing. To make the trailer easier to drive on and off a padded pipe cage is added that nestles up to the rub rail on the sides.”

Then he says plank guide ramps are added to the trailer deck to feed the boat in smoothly along with protective polystyrene blocks to improve the floatation. “The advantages are great. The trailers can be launched over the open beach and the club grooms the section of gravel in front of the club house and winches to make it a smooth run….and best of all you don’t get your feet wet.”

In the club’s heyday it was common to see 100 trailers bobbing around off the beach. The idea even caught on with visiting boaties who have apparently adopted it in Australia and other parts of the world. Today it’s a common sight to see 40- or 50 trailers a couple of hundred metres off the beach in the trailer park, says Bawden. Over time it was discovered the floating trailer was being adopted in parts of Australia.


TAPA newsletter 2005

Floating trailers: NZ Fishing Feb 1994

excerpt from Neville Bawden article in HB Herald Tribune

Interview with Neville Bawden and Clifton Marine Club founding member Peter Murton



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