by Christopher Cunningham
I have four boat trailers, and on all of them the boats drag over bare wood and come to rest on the bunks padded with carpet. Rollers seemed to be the only alternative, and may work for all the motorboats that I see throttling up to power onto their trailers, but they weren’t well suited to any of my boats. I have bearing buddies installed, but I prefer to keep them—and the taillights—out of the water whenever I can, so I like a trailer with a plywood platform that I can safely walk on for pushing a boat out to launch and pulling a bow up out of the water to retrieve a boat. The plywood trailer decks and the carpet-covered bunks create a lot of drag; even when I’m launching the boat and have the slope in my favor, it takes a hard shove.
Carpet gets less boat-friendly with use and age. My boats come out of the water pretty clean, but when I vacuumed the carpet I was going to replace with HDPE, I extracted a lot of grit, which appeared, under magnification, quite fine compared with beach sand,. I suspect it was picked up from roads while driving. And the pile of the carpet padding I’d put on one trailer 10 years ago has become quite stiff and is now more of an abrasive than a cushion. I don’t mind the painted hulls getting a bit scuffed—they’re meant for the rigors of cruising—but I don’t want my Whitehall’s varnished Port Orford planks to prematurely lose their shine.
A few years ago, I had added some small pieces of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) across the centerline of one of the trailers plywood decks to reduce the friction of bare wood. I was pleased with how much easier it made launching and retrieving my 14′ Whitehall, so when I modified that trailer with a longer tongue for my 19’ Caledonia yawl, I decided to replace the carpet-padding on the bunks with StarBoard by King Plastics, a slippery marine-grade HDPE. I bought 3/8″ StarBoard for the two bunks, stiff enough to keep its shape and thick enough to accommodate countersinks for screws. The material is easily worked with common shop tools. I quickly rounded the corners with a router and drilled holes with Fuller bits and Forstner bits. I used galvanized screws to secure the StarBoard to the 2×6 bunks. The HDPE was more than solid enough to keep the screw heads from pushing past the countersinks.
The difference the HDPE makes at the ramp is dramatic. When the yawl was resting on carpet and plywood, I had to put my shoulder into the bow to push the boat into the water, and that was with the slope of the ramp in my favor. Now even standing upright with just my hands on the boat I can push it back, even when the trailer is on level ground. The reduced friction means I have to be prepared for the boat to pick up its own momentum when it’s being launched at the ramp. When it’s steep, I can loop the painter around the winch post to check the boat’s speed. Bringing the boat back aboard the trailer takes much less work than before. The winch no longer takes two hands on the crank to bring the boat up the last several feet.
With the reduced friction, having the boat well secured on the trailer is all the more important. An extra tie-down strap or two can keep the boat in place, and a preventer chain made to the bow eye is a worthwhile backup to the winch connection.
Where I’ve installed HDPE, and the especially slippery StarBoard in particular, I’ve greatly decreased the strain on the boat, the winch, and my back when I’m at the launch ramp. I have two boats that are too big and heavy to take off their trailers while they’re at home, but installing HDPE is simple enough that I can cut, router, and drill the pieces at home and then install them at the ramp while my son motors to one of the waterside restaurants to pick up lunch for the two of us.
Christopher Cunningham is the editor of Small Boats Magazine.
The author is grateful for the recommendation to try StarBoard, which came through Kent and Audrey Lewis from Steve Baum, who had made the same switch on his trailer.
Starboard is available from a number of retailers. Search online for “Starboard HDPE.” For the bunks shown here. I bought two 3/8″ x 5″ x 60″ pieces for $50 at the Seattle TAPS Plastics store.
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