24/02/2017
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Towing: The Battle of the Sexes!

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Traditionally, men are the tow car drivers and women the navigators and Thermos- coffee pourers. But have we got it the wrong way around? Caravan sends ‘him’ and ‘her’ caravanning virgins on a C&CC tow course to discover who's the best!

Words and photos by John Sootheran

 

Here's the scene: We're here at the Camping & Caravanning Club HQ near Coventry for the ultimate towing ‘face-off’: Man v Woman.

There are scores to be settled: years of patronising comments, derogatory observations about spatial awareness and lots of yelling: “I can’t see you!”

We’ve all been there.

Will Hawkins

Sally Jarvis

Will Hawkins learning to tow a caravan Sally Jarvis learns to tow a caravan
In the Blue Corner, representing male confidence and physical prowess is Will Hawkins; caravanning newbie and new digital editor on caravanmagazine.co.uk. And in the Pink Corner (we love a sexual stereotype), representing female guile, focus and listening skills, is Sally Jarvis, new caravan owner and magazine editor.

 

Caravan Tow Course

Caravan tow instructor Jack Cook with Sally and Will

Caravan tow instructor Jack Cook with Will and Sally

Officiating today is C&CC Super-Instructor, Jack Cook, a driving and towing expert with 30 years coaching experience. Jack’s seen it all.

“I’m a bit nervous,” admits Will, as we park up on arrival. “Not just about the towing, but what if I lose to Sally. I’ll never live it down in the office!”

“I’m a bit nervous. Not just about the towing, but what if I lose to Sally. I’ll never live it down in the office!”

After a brief, but manly, pep-talk featuring phrases like ‘big girl’s blouse’ and ‘man up’, Will pulls himself together. We head inside for a briefing and to fill out the insurance forms.

The pair will be using my Volvo XC60 and a Bailey caravan supplied by the Club. Most of the training takes place in the C&CC’s huge car park, but it culminates in a drive-out through inner Coventry with a van in tow. Quiet business estates, busy dual carriageways, huge intersections and inner city roads where no-one in their right mind would ever take a caravan – there’s a bit of everything, apparently proving that smiling Jack has a dark side!

The initial briefing covers the basic principles of towing and other caravanning challenges, like the car and van weights, tyres, outfit matching, loading, mirrors, nose weights and lots of other good stuff. There's much to take in, and our candidates ask a lot of questions and look a bit like rabbits-in-headlights at times, until Jack reassures them, and reveals that all the information’s repeated on in-depth info sheets.

Caravan Towing Begins

Help each other manoeuvre a caravan

We’re soon heading outside to tow.

There's no messing around. After starting with a hands-on briefing on measuring nose weight, reversing to the hitch, hitching and levelling, and setting up extension mirrors, the pair is straight into towing through a slalom of cones.

It looks tight, but with Jack walking alongside the car, advising on the turning points, they make mincemeat of the course. Considering they’ve never driven my car before, never mind towed a caravan, they look confident and composed.

So, after a trial run through, it's time for a 'solo challenge': Reverse the car to the caravan (directed by the other competitor) – hitch up, fit towing mirrors, tow the slalom, loop through a tight ‘parking space-sized gap'; then pull up and unhitch. What could go wrong?

Being an old fashioned sort of gentleman, Will insists it's ladies first!

Sally reverses straight to the hitch with some impressive direction from Will. The hitch head drops straight on, no messing. She's making it look easy. Must it be beginner's luck?

Sally jumps out and runs through the hitching routine almost flawlessly, with only the slightest prompting needed from Jack. Then, she’s back in the car and heading off towards the slalom. Once again, Sally nips through the cones like a pro and takes a wide arc after the last cone to line up for the parking space. She's straight through. It's looking like a clear round. She pulls over to unhitch.

Sally hooks up the caravan's electrics

“The hardest part, so far, is understanding the correct weights and ratios you need to tow a caravan safely,” confides Will, as he waits his turn. “There’s a lot to think about, but I reckon this will make a big 

difference when I start towing for real.”

Meanwhile, Sally is halfway through unhitching. She's already introduced us to her ‘lefty loosey, righty tighty' method of remembering how the jockey wheel clamp tightens. It made us laugh, but it's little tricks like this that can help you remember key things.

Sally loosens off the jockey wheel

Suddenly, though, she seems to forget the order of unhitching. She thinks for a minute, pondering all the levers, cables and handles on the hitch head, then, with some reassuring words from Jack, she completes the challenge. It’s taken her 12 mins 15 seconds. Not that time is of the essence.

Next up, it’s Will.

He carefully reverses and hitches, and fits the wing mirrors with ease. Then he’s off on the course.

“Ooh, he’s gone a bit wide there,’ says Jack. But Will gets back on track and whisks through the remainder of the slalom. Then disaster strikes. Will misjudges his turning circle into the parking space and nudges the Volvo’s nose into the bushes. He calmly reverses for another go and finishes the manoeuvring and unhitching with aplomb. 12 minutes 30 seconds have elapsed.

I can sense Sally mentally punching the air as Jack declares that she had the best drive, but then he soothes Will’s male ego by revealing that he did the best hitching.

Will reversing the caravan

Emptying the mirrors

It’s neck and neck, as we head into ‘reversing a caravan’.

Jack explains the principal of ‘emptying the mirrors’. You set the mirrors so that, when the outfit is straight, you can see a slither of the van side in each mirror. As you reverse, if one side of the van suddenly starts to fill more of one of the mirrors, i.e., the van is starting to divert that way, you simply steer toward that mirror to ‘empty it' – correcting the angle of the van.

Maybe it’s a male thing, but I’ve always found this simple and efficient, and so did Will, but Sally just couldn't get her head around it. "I think I'd be alright at reversing, but I need to work out my system," she says.

Jack Knife

Tight turn with a caravanNext, Jack gets the two to reverse almost into a jack-knife. "If you watch the inside wheel'" he says, "If it stops turning, then you've gone as far as possible, but, while it's still turning, however slowly, you're alright. "Turns out this car-van combo can't jack-knife, even on full-lock."

Once in the jack-knife position, it looks like it’ll take a major manoeuvre to get the outfit straight again, but Jack looks unperturbed. “You just need to do a shunt,” he says.

“From having the steering wheel fully right-hand-down and the towcar almost at right angles to the van, Will turned to the opposite lock and rolled the car forward. Miraculously, within one metre of travel, the car and van are straight! The manoeuvre is confidence inspiring stuff if you find yourself in a pickle. Nice one, Jack!

Miraculously, within one metre of travel, the car and van are straight!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shunt & Wiggle

“Let’s hit the road,” says our tutor. “Who’s going first?” Once again, Will politely and deviously lets Sally begin!

We drive out of the car park and onto the road. “Pull over,” says Jack. Sally pulls in carefully. “Okay look in the mirror,” he says. “The back end of the van is sticking out slightly into the road. This is where you need a wiggle.”

Sally towing in Coventry

We’re at the left-hand kerb. Jack tells Sally to turn hard right and drive forward about a metre, before turning hard left to bring the towcar back into the kerb. Another miracle occurs as the back end of the van tucks itself in neatly next to the kerb. “That’s what I call a wiggle,” adds the towing Meister with barely a hint of smugness. We are not worthy!

With shunt and wiggle in the bag, Sally heads into Coventry. It's 3 pm on Saturday and busy. She drives accurately, safely and smoothly in all conditions. Will is looking worried.

30 minutes later we’re back at HQ, after a relaxing drive out, and the drivers swap.

Will is good too, if anything a little more progressive than Sally, accelerating promptly out of roundabouts where conditions allow.

Will towing in Coventry

Both of our ‘guinea-pig’s prove that towing isn’t the huge barrier to caravanning that some people think it is, especially when you do a course like this. Will agrees: “Manoeuvring a caravan behind a car is a lot easier than I expected, although it does dramatically change the ‘feel’ of the drive. Moving around a busy city with a caravan in tow was a lot less worrying than I thought, too.”

Sally agrees: "If anything, getting used to the different car, with its electric handbrake, was harder than the towing. Anyone who tows without doing a course like this must be crackers. Seriously, it's the best £150 you could ever spend as a caravanner."

Final assessments

Sally

Sally Jarvis caravan towing

Mirrors: “I’ve given you a Silver because you didn’t use the outer mirrors all the time, you were drawn to the inner mirror.”

Signals: “You were very good at signalling. I'll give you Gold.”

Accelerator: “I'm giving you a Silver. You could be more positive, especially when coming off the roundabouts where there was open space in front of us. You could improve a little bit on that.”

Footbrake: Your braking was excellent. Gold.”

Gears: Very good. You used them sensibly and intelligently. Gold.”

Handbrake: “You could have used the handbrake on a couple of occasions.”

"That's not my fault; I didn't know how to use it!"

“Who are we blaming then?”

“Errrr… Volvo?”

“Okay, but using the footbrake can dazzle the driver behind in these conditions. Bronze.”

Steering and positioning: “I’d give you a Silver Plus.”

“There’s a Silver Plus? I didn’t know we had Silver Plusses?”

“Well, we can make them!”

The speed of approach: “I thought was very good, although I’d have taken three or four miles per hour off that bit where it tightened up and got narrow. Gold.”

Anticipation and planning:Anticipation and planning are something that can always improve, but I thought you did well. Silver”

Safety and consideration: “These were in the forefront of what you were doing all the time. Gold.”

Sally’s drive-out score: 5 Golds, 4 Silvers, 1 Bronze

“How did you feel when towing?” Jack asks Sally.

“I felt very confident, thanks to all your advice… and the fact that you were sitting next to me.”

“What would you be like on your own?”

“I think I’d be alright. I think I feel safer and better at towing than I do at hooking up.”

“I figured it was a good confident drive. Just needs a little more acceleration into open spaces. I’m a big believer, that, when we’ve got an open space head, we drive positively into it

“From a beginner’s point of view, your very first time with a caravan, I thought you did well.”

Will

Fitting caravan wing mirros

Mirrors: “I thought your mirrors were okay, could have been better. They take a bit of getting used to. Silver.”

Signals: “In the early stages, I thought you were a bit weak on the signals. Silver.”

Accelerator: “I thought the drive was confident and progressive.” Gold.

Footbrake: Footbrake use was okay and got better when we were driving in the closer situations. Silver.”

Gears: I thought you used the gears well. You had a tendency to go up and down all the gears, instead of block-changing, but you were using the brake too, so there was no problem with that. Gold.”

Handbrake: “You used the parking brake quite well, as and when needed. That was quite okay. Gold.”

Steering and positioning: “Your steering and positioning became better as you became more confident. And, you became more aware of what we were trying to achieve. Occasionally, you were pulling up too close to vehicles in front. You’ve got to control that. It was minor, though. Gold.”

Speed of approach: “Speed of approach was good. On the tight spot, you’ve got to be careful that confidence doesn’t become over-confidence. Even as an experienced driver, you could have taken two or three miles per hour off that manoeuvre. A minor infraction, though. Gold.”

Anticipation and planning:Anticipation and planning need a bit more work, but we're well on the way to that. Silver.”

Safety and consideration: “Safety and attention were good. Gold.”

Will’s drive-out score: 6 Golds, 4 Silvers

“That was a very confident drive,” say Jack. “Just keep the gap opened up so that you can see the tyres on the car in front of you, in traffic.”

The Caravan Tow Course Finale

Jack sums up: “I think that, between the two of you, on the drive, it was swings and roundabouts, you each excelled at certain things, which evened it out. But, I have to say, the reversing tipped the scales. There wasn’t much wrong with Will’s manoeuvre, and I’m sure Sally’s will come. What Sally needs is some time practising on her own.”

As Jack takes a few minutes to compile his notes and decide who is the best towcar driver here, I chat with Sally and Will.

“It was good fun and informative' says Will. "From learning the safety aspects to driving techniques and weights, it was all useful, and I'm sure it'll help make caravanning more enjoyable."

“I feel much more confident than before about towing,” Sally adds. “This course is a great investment for anyone who wants to get into caravanning. Honestly, I’d say it’s essential.

“Jack was fun, informative and patient. He calmly explained the theories and me helped to understand why, when I made a mistake, it could cause problems when towing.”

And the winner is

So that's that. We've had a brilliant day, and the two candidates have learned loads.

I asked the instructor, Jack, to imagine he was incapacitated and needed someone to hitch up and tow his caravan with him to France, which of our candidates he would pick.

“Look, they’re both very good tow car drivers. Very good. But, if I have to choose one, it would be Will. He just has that extra confidence and drives more progressively. His hitching and reversing were also that bit better. To be honest, though, I’d be happy with either of them.”

Will wins the battle

THANKS

The Camping and Caravanning ClubMany thanks to the Camping & Caravanning Club for a superb day’s training. Particularly, instructor, Jack Cook; Dawn Gawman from the Club’s Membership Team and Club Communications guru, Rob Ganley.

Caravan Tow Course Lessons

How did you find it?

It was good fun and informative. From learning the safety aspects to driving techniques and weights, it was all useful and will help to make caravanning more enjoyable and relaxed.

"From learning the safety aspects to driving techniques and weights, it was all useful and will help to make caravanning more enjoyable and relaxed."

What was hardest?

The most challenging aspect is understanding the correct weights and ratios you need to tow a caravan safely. There is a lot to think about, but not so much that it makes it daunting. The training helps you to prepare well for towing a caravan and helps you to understand how to do it safely.

What key learnings have you taken from it?

I learnt that there is more to towing a caravan than meets the eye. If you follow a safe procedure, you can tow easily without worrying about whether you have attached your van correctly. Also, it’s important to load your caravan properly and to understand the effect it can have if you get it wrong. Finally, learning how to control a caravan which is snaking behind you is vital.

I learnt that there is more to towing a caravan than meets the eye.

“It was a strange car remember,” says Sally, gently angling for more points.

“I tend not to factor that in. As a driver, technically we just get in and drive.

"As far as the important things go… mirrors? Use the outer mirrors more. Acceleration could be a little more positive, especially coming off roundabouts. Just remember, never put your car where your eyes and brain haven't been.

And, use the handbrake more, and the steering position isn't a million miles away."

There wasn't a lot wrong with that reverse, and you panicked a bit in the middle of it. Pulling forward wasn't necessary, but it was a solution.

Find out about caravan tow courses with the Camping and Caravanning Club here

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