The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Five Boat Lift Usage Tips

When we head out cruising far from home, sooner or later our boat will need to come out of the water for maintenance or off-season storage, and we will be faced with the decision of how and where to get that done.

A decision we will most likely have to make in a strange place with nothing to go on other than our own observations and anecdotal information from people we don’t know well.

Phyllis and I always found these decisions, and the subsequent haul of our beloved boat and home, one of the most stressful parts of voyaging.

That said, we were fortunate in that over some three decades of getting hauled in new-to-us places, ranging from Arctic Norway to Portugal and a bunch of places on the East Coast of North America, we never had a big problem, but I would be the first to say that was a lot about good luck.

When It All Goes Wrong

But it’s not always that way.

Here’s a story of when a boat lift here in Nova Scotia collapsed while attempting to launch AAC members Frank and Anne Mulholland’s Ovni 435 Scot Free III, as well as some thoughts on possible ways to avoid their miserable experience.

Let’s start with what happened in Frank’s words:

On launch day, 4th June, Scot Free III was ready for splashdown with only the antifouling of the lifting keel and patches from the boat supports to be painted.

The plan was to move the boat, with the travel-hoist, to an area near the hoist-dock where we could finish the painting. Several other boats had been stored close to Scot Free which made access for the hoist more difficult than before. 

The amount of back and forwards “jiggling” meant that a couple of lines had to be adjusted to correctly position the hoist. Anne was aboard doing this, while I went below [on the ground] to make sure that the lifting strops were in the correct place.

The boat had been stored ashore, adjacent to the travel-lift dock so the total distance moved would be less than 50 metres.

The boat was lifted clear of the blocks and stands and moved back, a couple of boat lengths. Inexplicably, Anne remained on-board.

The hoist then made a very sharp 90º turn and it was during the turn that the weld at the trunion bearing failed. The hoist, now in two separate pieces, collapsed onto the boat.

Anne, who was under the dodger, miraculously wasn’t crushed by the hoist and only later found a bruise on her arm from the dodger frame, which bent & folded around her. The hoist driver leapt off the control platform, during the collapse and was also uninjured. 

Subsequently, another boat owner told us that one of the wheels was skidding and we could see rubber and scuff marks on the pavement.

The newly exposed weld appeared to be corroded and was only 50% effective (to my untrained eye). It would certainly appear that the stresses induced in the 90º turn and the drag from the skidding wheel were the cause of failure of the weak weld.

Whether this was due to wheel mis-alignment or a failure of the hydraulic drive to one of the wheels will only be known to the Club’s engineers and insurers. 

Wow, if Frank’s account does not make your blood run cold, you have clearly never had your much-loved boat hauled.

Lessons Learned

Here are some lessons I have learned from this horrible incident.

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Colin Speedie

What awful luck. I have lifted boats out with all sorts of gear, travelhoists, sledges, hydro lifts, cranes, even and it always makes my hair curl. Never had a single misfortune, although I came close once.
I agree that it’s basically impractical to deal with everything when the wheels are turning, there’s just no time. We do our best and hope that everything holds up. I have noticed that a lot of yards now require everyone on the ground, though.
The only times I have seen accidents have involved ancient, badly maintained cranes.
But truly, there but for the grace of God go we all and I can only wish Frank and Anne the best of luck.
And you’re right – aluminium construction may have saved Scot Free!

Drew Frye

One more tip. Avoid sub-freezing conditions. The only serious mishaps I have witnessed both related to ice on the hull allowing straps to slip.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

This is a terrible story to read but the tips you provide sound very good to me. The only additional tip that I can think of when assessing the state of a lift is to look at the tires, if you see huge cracks from dry-rot, they probably are not doing a good job of maintaining the equipment. That their boat survived is not only a testament to the toughness of the design but also probably suggests that the boat was kept low to the ground, there is a reason that you always carry heavy loads as low as is reasonable.

FYI, Marine Travelift which makes many of the units offers inspection services which can be found here:

I declined to haul at a place about 10 years ago because when I asked what their inspection routine was, they didn’t have one and had never had the company come out to inspect. I think it would be really helpful if boat owners started asking about when the lift was last inspected, if people make enough noise it might happen.

I have seen a few accidents or the aftermath in person and then seen a few magazine articles of widely known ones. The only travelift failure I have seen was related to going down an icy incline in the winter and started sliding, one of the tires caught again causing it to spin which shifted the boat in the slings dropping the keel on the ground which finally brought everything to a halt. On a marine railway, I have seen the uphaul wire snap which made for a quite exciting unplanned relaunching but was not actually that dangerous to people or the boat provided no one was in the path of the wire. We typically haul our boat on a hydraulic trailer. I have not seen a catastrophic failure with one of these (dead batteries and leaking hydraulics don’t count), but I would imagine frame corrosion, the haul wire and hydraulics are the vulnerable things. I asked the guy who hauls us and he said he has seen 1 boat knocked over by the cab of the truck and no boats dropped in 25,000+ boat moves he has been involved with.

Your point about the people at the yard being problematic is also good. Years ago we were lifting a 6000+ lb mast out which was too big for our crane and the operator of the hired crane was refusing to boom down but rather insisted on just wiring down which was changing the angle in a way he didn’t realize. Eventually, the pick point slid too far down the mast and the masthead went from ~40′ in the air to smashing into the ground in just a few seconds. Retrospect says that someone should have forced the operator to stop and come look but he was being pretty stubborn and it is hard to think clearly in those situations. With travelifts, the scary one that I have seen a lot is using a lot of hope that friction on a slimy bottom or an undersized piece of line will keep the strap from slipping. With hydraulic trailers, I get most worried with moving the truck in and out from under the boat where being off by 2″ can mean hitting a stand and there are not a lot involved when doing it.

I hope that Frank and Anne get their boat back together soon.


Richard Ritchie

You say “I asked what their inspection routine was” This seems a very useful extra measure.

Matt Marsh

Travelifts, like forklifts, can be had with either pneumatic or solid cushion tires. With pneumatics, if they look bad they probably are bad. Cushion tires will look like crap after their first few months of use, but last almost forever.

Asking about the inspection regime is a good idea. Normal practice on all lifting equipment (forklifts, cranes, gantries, travelifts) is a daily documented visual check of a few dozen fluid levels and wear points, plus weekly or monthly checks that involve opening up hatches, checking fluid qualities, and greasing things. An annual full check by a certified 3rd party mechanic/inspector is also normal. Omitting any of those things is definitely Not Normal.

Our marina, rather than keeping its own equipment, hires the biggest mobile construction crane in the region for a couple of days in spring and fall. That way, they’re dealing with equipment and crews who are properly insured and licensed, using a nearly-new machine that is rigorously inspected and that is only stressed to a small fraction of its capacity in this role. It does make for an incredibly tight schedule, though, since each boat must make its designated 15 minute slot on one specific day.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

Yes, you are correct that some lifts use solid tires but in my observation it is quite a low percentage at least in places I have been. I don’t know the reason for that, maybe it is that lifts don’t have suspension and solid tires create a very harsh ride for the boat and equipment? Around here, a few yards have solid tires on their yard style hydraulic trailers and the boats are really noisy going across gravel lots when on them. Regardless, as Matt says, once you can see degradation in pneumatic tires, they are badly compromised and solid tires are very unlikely to ever cause a failure.

The good news is that it is very easy to spot the difference. If you see a Schrader or similar valve, you can be pretty confident it is pneumatic. Solid tires also have very small sidewalls (technically not even a sidewall) and tend to look very flat while pneumatic tires are a bit more balloon shaped and often show some deformation near the contact patch.


Ernest E Vogelsinger

Additionally, most travelifts have the correct pressure for pneumatic tires visible near the tires, as here:

Taras Kalapun

I would add an advise to ask around about lift experiences from fellow cruisers. I skipped one yard because a cruiser described me how unprofessional the lift operator was with his boat.

BTW, it would be very interesting to know how exactly those hull damages are fixed, as I have few small damages on my current Ovni.

Frank Mulholland

Yes indeed, ABCO did an excellent job of the welding. They cut out sections of the toe-rail, fabricated new pieces and welded them in. The carpenter at ERSY managed to minimise damage to the cabinetry by removing the aft heads and cutting access panels in the two heads bulkheads, removing the insulation and gaining access to the underside of the side-deck to allow ABCO to control heat transfer and allow dye checking of the welds. 
Removing all the 5200 secured furniture would indeed have been a nightmare thankfully this has been kept to a minimum.
The reinstallation continues and I can update this when complete. 

Charles Starke MD

Hi John
My Trintella 45 was dropped and declared a total loss in 2013. The Chinese wire was only 6 months old and the yard manager noticed and pointed out corrosion to the yard owner but the owner did not change the wire.
I made the mistake of not setting the running backs and inner forestay. If I had, the mast might have stayed up and not jumped and torn a hole in the deck, The oversized dyform rigging broke in pieces but the swages and turnbuckles did not fail!
The boat was condemned by my insurance company and sold in salvage since the boat hit the travel lift, sustained multiple damages to deck, sides, mast, electronics, lifelines, sissy bars and rigging. The chain plates were probably overstressed. The repair costs were estimated to be more than the insurance value and my cost in the boat.
The only other lesson is that no one should be on the boat when it’s hauled. Think of the flailing rigging. A yard worker got off 30 seconds before it fell
Best wishes,
Charles L Starke MD FACP
s/v Dawnpiper

Charles Starke MD

Hi John
I don’t remember the lift capacity but my 40,000 lb boat had been hauled multiple times before in the same yard. I couldn’t sleep for a month.
The only good part of the story is that we made friends with the man who bought the boat in salvage, and sailed with him on his old boat in Barcelona.
Best wishes

Alex Borodin

I must preface this by saying that I am _not_ speaking from experience (meaning, I have not hauled out in Germany), but… I know a few things about Germans and I can tell you they absolutely hate liability and they are crazy about having everything insured. Also, there’s a legal requirement for qualified third-party inspections of any lifting device capable of lifting > 1000 kg.
That’s to say that if you can plan a haulout in Germany, I’d consider that a risk reduction strategy.

Or, generalizing, there are countries where the regulations on crane safety are stricter than elsewhere and it might be useful to research that and choose wisely if you can.

Marc Dacey

I thought I recognized that boat. Considering our common boatyard has acquired (and as of the last time I looked, is starting to assemble) a larger Travelift, perhaps CC’ing this to the yard management is in order?

Before spring launch, anyway. I was more apprehensive seeing our steel boat go up the hill to the top tier than at any other point. We had Alchemy dropped off a cradle trailer in 2007 because the people at the yard “forgot” to pin in the rear restraining bar, Result? The first mild turn caused the trailer to spread out and boom went the boat. Luckily, only a single plate was dented and a rubber mallet fixed that. But had the boat rolled into the adjacent giant dumpster? Less good.

Another time I was in our haulout when a Contessa 26 was (somehow) dropped onto its own cradle, which obligingly bent in four directions. The Contessa, it was later learned, suffered no more than paint damage.

While I realize yard staff, amateur or pro, may not take kindly to instruction, I think it’s important to keep them aware that you, as the owner, have seen your boat hauled and lowered many times and you know where the lift marks should be and whether or not a cinch belt is required (yes, for us).

Tippy canoe.jpg
Marc Dacey

I have more, but they tend to aggravate my boat PTSD. They brought in a Travelift to get us off the cradle and trailer, and made me remove my forestay. They wanted the staysail stay off as well, but I refused as they (Outer Harbour Marina in Toronto) did not fill me with confidence.

Dick Stevenson

Hi John and all,
I know of 2 boats dropped off travel lifts, both badly damaged and I have forgotten the details, but operator error was certain for one. I have hauled in probably 5-7 countries and multiple North America yards and my research for a boat yard includes many of your suggestions, but I also try to collect local knowledge for boats bigger and more expensive than Alchemy. It is one of the few times where I want to know where “yachts” go. I am clear that ends up, sometimes, with my spending more money than the yard down the street.
And then, I cross my fingers.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
Ps. In addition to requesting information on Travel Lift maintenance and inspections, I would suggest asking about the number of their crew which have an ABYC certification. At the least, it may support the yard extending support for their employees who wish to get further training.
PSS. Having had Alchemy spend three winters in Lewisporte, NFL, (pictured and text in the article), I can attest that their crew (paid and professional) in this small club run marina is top-notch: sometimes it just comes to assessing the attitude of the personnel in the boat yard.

Conor Smith

I have a close friend who dropped his boat and showed me his photos that he took on his phone to detail his mistake. He is friends with a small yard in NY and while working with the owner of the yard, they dropped his Hallberg Rassy, into the water, from about 6 feet. Thankfully no damage.

The forward strap came off, and the bow dropped into the water, to the point the top of the gunnel was level with mean sea level. Of course buoyancy, (and the newly created pressure wave that reflected off the well walls) combined and launched the boat back upward. Thankfully the harmonics slowly dissipated and it came to rest, stern still hanging and zero damage occured.

The culprit was, unfortunately, negligence. The pin holding the fabric sling to the travel lift was missing its retaining ring/clip. The big frame drifted into the side well wall and knocked the pin half way out. It took 6 feet of lifting to bend the steel toggle open enough to let the sling fall off.

Andrew Hudson

I am curious if there is any way of inspecting the grunion bearing short of disassembling the lift. Also, it would seem logical that gravel would put less stress on the lift as the tires would more easily skid than on pavement. Our club avoids 90 degree turns; at this point I am glad they do.

Andy Hudson
Hudson River