Skipper and I have been pushed around by boat trailers since we were kids, and between the two of us we have been taking road trips with boats for over a century. Gearing up for this year’s boating, we got together with our friend Eddie, a professional trailer builder, to compare notes on best boat-trailering practices.
The item at the top of our list is keeping the boat light. While a boat for cruising can carry a lot of gear when it’s in the water, it should not be loaded down with excessive weight while on a trailer. Eddie has seen bent axles as a result of overloaded boats, and Skipper and I, with plenty of experience repairing damaged boats, know that lightly built hulls don’t tolerate the extra load. And, for the sake of the trailer, the combined weight of the boat, the gear it has aboard, and the trailer itself should not exceed the trailer’s total capacity, which is noted on the manufacturer’s tag. We load as much of our cruising gear as possible—especially the heaviest things like fresh water, anchors, and trolling-motor batteries—in the tow vehicle. Shifting the weight will ease the stress on the trailer, improve its performance on the road, and keep the boat and its gear from getting damaged. Trailers for small boats may have springs but not shock absorbers, so the boat and the gear will get a much bouncier ride than you do in the towing vehicle. The impact of the boat on the bunks or rollers and of the gear against the boat can cause damage.
The few items, such as rudders and oars, that are transported while on the cockpit sole get cushioned with beach towels. We use throwable cushions and our old PFDs as padding for the spars that ride in the boat and use docklines to tie them down. Sail ties secure the furled sails to keep them from flapping and wearing at freeway speeds. We use a transom-saver on our 15′ runabout’s outboard to keep its weight from straining the transom. When we trailer our 19′ sailboat with the motor in its inboard motorwell, we rig a line from the part of the transom that spans the well to the lower unit to reduce the effect of road bounce and stress on the motor mount. Centerboards should be secured and prevented from dropping in case whatever normally holds it retracted in the trunk fails. We have bunk rollers placed to support the keel at the middle to aft portion of the trunk slot to prevent the board from dropping down and leaving a trail of sawdust on the pavement. Locker and hatch lids should be locked or pinned lest they take flight on the freeway.
Full fuel tanks are heavy but not safe to carry in the passenger compartment of the towing vehicle; even the vapors coming from an empty can are unhealthy. Transporting them securely tied to a roof rack is advisable if the vehicle can accommodate them or consider carrying empty containers in the boat with a plan to fill them when you get close to the put in. Plastic containers will do less damage to the boat than metal gas cans.
Inflate the tires up to the maximum pressure indicated on the sidewalls. Air hoses at gas stations are inconvenient and often charge for the use, hand and foot pumps are impractical, so an electric inflator is a good investment in tire maintenance. Fill tires when they are cold, before you drive—the maximum indicated takes into account the increase in pressure due to hot weather and long highway drives. Check and fill the towing vehicle’s tires while you’re at it. Lug nuts usually stay secure as long as they have been properly torqued after a wheel change, but to be on the safe side, bring a lug-nut wrench along on the first tire check of the season.
Pull on the tops of the tires to check for loose bearings—there should be some play, but no more than 1/8″— and leave the window down for the first few miles of a trip to listen for a squeaky or crunchy bearing. It may need some grease. If it has the play required and grease doesn’t eliminate the noise, the bearing may be bad and unsafe on the road, especially at freeway speed. It’s best to head home and replace both bearings in that hub. (When one bearing fails, it usually heats up the grease, the grease fails, and then the other bearing is compromised.)
Surprisingly, not all folks use boat straps aft or transom straps, but we recommend them. We use over-center straps or ratchet straps, because we have not had good experiences with the cam-buckle straps. Ratchet straps can exert more than 2,000 lbs of force; they should be snug but not so tight that they stress and crack the hull. We also tie a second line from the bow eye to the trailer bow stop to supplement the winch hook; some trailers come equipped with a safety chain for the bow eye.
At around 1 mile, 10 miles, and 100 miles, as well as whenever we stop, we check the boat and whatever is stowed aboard and tug all of the straps to see if they’ve loosened. We check the bearings and tire sidewall temperatures with a touch to make sure they’re not getting hot. We also check the lights.
A padlock on an outboard will help keep the mounting screws from vibrating loose on the road and discourage theft in a hotel parking lot; we use locks on trailer couplers as well. If you have a hitch receiver, a locking receiver pin or a cable lock from trailer to tow vehicle provides additional security against theft. A boat cover designed for trailering will prevent an open boat from becoming a swimming pool during a downpour, and provides a bit of security for any gear kept aboard during overnight stops. If you trailer an open boat without a cover, be sure the drain plug is removed, because there needs to be an escape path for water if it rains. Some folks have built and installed drain-plug keepers near the trailer coupler to serve as reminders to remove and install the plugs.
To deal with breakdowns on our long-range trips, we carry a grease gun, rags, either a spare set of grease-packed bearings or a hub with bearings already installed, along with the spare tire, a tire inflator, lug wrench, and jack. Our small toolkit contains boat registration, channel-lock pliers, screwdriver, duct tape, multipurpose tool, and is adorned with a BoatUS sticker with the toll-free number to call for tow assistance. We live large and pay for the BoatUS tow package that includes both water recovery and land towing for not only the boat trailer, but for the tow vehicle as well. AAA and Good Sam also offer boat-trailer towing with RV membership options.
Plan for a slower trip than you’d make without a trailer; it will be easier on the boat and easier on the nerves. Once in transit, Google Maps on your smart phone, your vehicle nav system, or other GPS driving aids will show real-time delays that factor into tactical trip planning. Maneuvering in tight spots requires skill; in rest stops we usually head to the trucks-with-trailers side for the added room and exiting without backing. At stores and gas stations we head for places where there aren’t any other cars. If we do get in a tight spot, instead of backing down or trying to turn the entire rig around, we’ll unhook the trailer, turn vehicle and trailer separately, hook everything back up, and be on our way.
As a former Marine aviator and a current Airline Transport Pilot, I have always had checklists to get me safely from place to place. Having one for trailering assures that Skipper and I arrive at the launch with boat and trailer in good shape.
“Clark” Kent and Audrey “Skipper” Lewis mess about with their small armada of 15 boats and four trailers. Their boat-trailer trips have included hauls from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific and back, and up to the Great Lakes. Next stop, the Chesapeake. A sample checklist can be found on their blog, Small Boat Restoration.
Eddie English of Milton, Florida, owns and operates Eddie English Co., Inc. creating custom boat trailers for the past three decades.
Trailer lights are my most frequent boating problem, so I’ve learned to check them often. When I go boating solo, it takes me a few trips from the car to the back end of the trailer to check the turn signals, tail lights, and brake lights. The first two functions are easy enough—those lights can be turned on—but for the brake lights, I need something to press and hold the brake pedal. I used to lean a brick against the pedal, but I’d always leave it at home—I wouldn’t want it flying around in the car in the event of an accident. I’ve since made four devices to press the pedal, and the two here have worked very well.
If the trailer lights don’t pass muster, I have to find where the problem is. After reading the article Kent and Audrey wrote on LED trailer lights, I made the switch from incandescent fixtures, so burned-out bulbs and corroded sockets are no longer an issue.
I have an inexpensive tester that plugs into the vehicle socket. It will illuminate its LEDs to verify current coming for left and right turn signals, tail lights, and brake lights. If any of the tests fail, checking the fuses is easy enough and doesn’t require groveling at the back bumper. The trailer-light circuit can have its own fuses, so the vehicle’s tail lights aren’t always an indication that power is getting to the trailer plug.
If the fuses are good, the trailer-wire plugs may be the problem. The four-wire flat plugs I have don’t seem to age well and their contacts get corroded. I clean the pins with a brass-wire brush and the sockets with a cotton swab dipped in vinegar. The vinegar, a mild acid, will loosen corrosion and spinning the swab will wipe it off. On occasion, using a pair of pliers to pinch the plug to tighten the sockets is required.
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