Trailer Without Tears
If you’re one of the legions of trailer sailors, you know the advantages of having your boat in your driveway or storage yard instead of in a slip or on a mooring. Storms are not likely to be a concern and bottom paint is of only academic interest.
With these conveniences though, are other concerns. Your boat spends most of its life on the trailer. Either just sitting there, or being pulled down the highway at speeds it was never intended to attain on the water. All this places stresses on your water toy that may not have been considered by the original designer. Fortunately, there are things you can do to make life on the road less traumatic for your hull, rig, and accessories.
The most important is to be certain that your trailer is right for your boat. This means that the capacity should be adequate not just for the boat, but all the "necessary" gear you’ve stuffed into it. Not only does the trailer have to carry the weight, but so do the tires. It’s very common for sailboat owners to put smaller wheels on their trailers to lower the rig and make it easier to launch. Smaller tires turn faster, wear more rapidly, and are subject to higher stresses than ones with a larger diameter. Will the smaller tires carry the load without overheating and shedding their treads? Check the load rating on the sidewall. A 50% safety margin is not too much. Often, a better quality tire will do the trick without going to larger wheels.
What about the trailer bunks? (those boards your boat rides on) Are they long enough to give the hull good support? Because the boat is on the trailer so much, a poorly supported hull can start to sag and show stress cracks in odd places. When the boat is off the trailer, take a good look at that old carpeting on the bunks. It’s not hard to replace, but you’ll have to give up some sailing after you launch and do some work with a big staple gun to replace the padding. Use some good indoor/outdoor carpet, and pre-cut it before you go to the lake. It’ll make the job go faster and you’ll be on the water in no time.
Getting back to the trailer, take a look at the ball on your hitch. Is it big enough? Does the size match the trailer tongue? The shank should be no more than 1/8 inch smaller than the hole in the hitch. Use the nut and lockwasher that came with the ball and tighten it to the manufacturer’s specifications. If the ball is at all suspect, replace it. A top-quality ball is less than $20 and thousands of dollars of boat are attached to it.
Trailer lights. I have never owned a trailer that didn’t give me problems with the lights sooner or later, mostly sooner. Electrical stuff was never meant to be dunked in the water. The best solution is to fabricate a light bar separate from the trailer that hangs on the stem of the boat. String a cable to the light plug on your tow vehicle and you have a system that will last for years, never be in the lake unless you forget to take it off before launching, and can be repaired without crawling around under the trailer.
If you’re using the lights mounted on the trailer, it’s a good idea to unhook them before launching. Cold water and hot lights do not co-exist well.
If you don’t have a set of bearing buddies that allow you to lubricate the wheel hearings without disassembling them, install a set. Give them a small shot of waterproof grease before every trip. If a bearing starts to go, you might not hear it and your first warning will be when it collapses and the boat and trailer go crazy at 60 mph. This does not make for a happy day.
If your boat weighs under a thousand pounds, it should be secured to the trailer. The easiest way is a webbing strap with a ratcheting adjustment. You might think that a five- or six-hundred pound boat won’t come off the trailer, but I’ve seen daylight under some pretty large craft when the trailer wheels hit a bump at speed. The strap is only about $20, so protect your investment.
Take a look at how everything else is secured for towing. Is you mast supported in at least three places? The flexing an aluminum mast can do on the road can cause enough metal fatigue to ensure a failure, always right when you need it the least. But then, who ever needed a mast to break?
Ensure that all the shrouds and rigging are held with ties or bungees so they won’t drag or catch on a passing semi. I like to use two bungees in each location. They have been known to break.
While you’re securing things, look at all the equipment on the boat. Will it stay in place in an 80 mph wind? I know you’d never drive that fast, but if you get a head wind or a gust from meeting a truck, things can become detached. Some of these might be vital to your sailing day. I once had a turnbuckle fall off the forestay on the way to the lake. Luckily, I had a spare. Now, I keep these things secured. I met another sailor who arrived without his mast. He had no idea where he lost it and was many miles from a replacement. When in doubt, stow items inside the boat or car.
The outboard motor should almost never be left on its bracket when towing. There are 40 pounds or more cantilevered out from your transom. When you hit a bump, the resulting loads can rip the bracket from the transom, leaving chunks of boat and motor parts on the highway. Anyone behind you will not be happy to see your Evinrude bouncing down the road at them. Nor will your insurance company.
You do have insurance, don’t you? Some auto policies cover your boat while you’re towing it, but it’s better to check. Insurance companies are in business to collect premiums, not to pay claims.
A cheap form of insurance is a spare tire. You think that’s obvious? How many times have you seen a trailer parked along the road with one wheel off while the owner drives into town to have a flat fixed? Anyone with a spare can take your boat for an extended vacation without you.
Make sure your jack works on the trailer as well as on your car. Many either won’t fit or don’t have the capacity. A small hydraulic jack likely will fit both needs better than the one that came with your car. It’s probably easier to use, too.
For many sailors, the hardest part of trailering is backing up. You don’t have to be a master truck driver to do this. You do need to remember a few simple rules. The most important of which is, you have to be able to see the trailer. This might mean putting extended mirrors on the tow car. These are available at automotive stores and can have either permanent or temporary mountings. For very low trailers you may want to add a couple of bright fiberglass poles so you can see it when the boat isn’t on it. These can be available from bicycle stores for a few dollars each.
To back the trailer, remember to GO SLOW. More people get into trouble trying to rush than for any other reason. Place both hands at the bottom of the wheel and move them in the direction you want the rear of the trailer to go. With this method, it doesn’t matter if you’re looking out the back window or in the mirrors. Take your rig to an empty parking lot and practice backing it into different areas. Most single-axle trailers turn and back easier than double- or triple-axle rigs. The two-wheel trailers do have a tendency to turn very sharply once they start, so back them even more carefully. Above all, don’t be reluctant to pull forward and start over if a backing operation is going badly. Trying to turn a bad start into a good finish often results in dents or other disasters.
Finally, keep your perspective. The fate of western civilization does not hang on your hitch.
Two wrongs don’t make a right, but three rights make a left.