$60,000 boat on a $200 Trailer – focus on Brakes – by Bill Nalle

This article was first published in the Southwester Newsletter, editor Craig Stanfield, of the Southwest Chapter of ACBS.  Bill Nalle was awarded the 2017 ACBS-Hagerty Safety Award for the best published article on boating safety.  This is the second segment of the article.


Starting at the bottom end you always have the option of having no brakes. This is fine, but only for the very smallest of boats. After deciding that you need brakes there are two basic types to choose from, disc and drum. Next you have several methods to control the brakes. After having all kinds of trailers, large and small, I would never buy another trailer with drum brakes. It is just that simple,

I think drum brakes are cheap and in their own way can be dangerous, especially with electric actuators. Drum brakes can’t be easily seen, they tend to hide problems, and you don’t realize there is an issue until the emergency arises and there you are … with no brakes. They are prone to getting lubricant from leaking seals on their shoes, can develop worn magnets and cause adjustment problems. Having said all that, IF you are very diligent and keep them serviced, they will work, but you HAVE to stay on top of it. Most recreational boaters just don’t put the effort into keeping drum brakes up to speed.

Disc brakes are on nearly every car made today, and there is a reason. They are good! You can just look at them and see that they are wearing evenly. If you see rust on the rotors, there is a problem. Can’t do that with drum brakes. You can look at the disc brake pads to see if they are worn. The disc rotors are out in the open and out of the way of most flailing grease. If grease gets on them, you see it and can go fix the leaking axle seals. This is the only brake I will put on a trailer now.

When I stop for gas I always check the temperature of each hub to see if they are all about the same temperature. This can be done by simply placing the back of your hand near the dust cap. This practice allows me to “see” a bearing failure before it occurs. With disc brakes you can do the same thing. Gently, and I MEAN GENTLY, feel the heat on each rotor. You should feel equal heat from each brake telling you that each brake is functioning equally. Do be careful here, as a rotor can be very hot. If one is colder than the rest you know it is not working or if one is hotter than the rest it might be dragging. In any case you can see a problem before it becomes a big issue.

There are two basic choices for actuating your hydraulic trailer brakes. The simple and least expensive choice is a surge hydraulic system. It mounts in the coupler and the force of the trailer pushing on the slowing tow vehicle actuates a cylinder to apply the brakes. This is what trailer rental places such as U Haul use. This works well and on balance surge brakes are a very good choice. The disadvantage is that the driver cannot apply the trailer brakes independently. The advantage is that they are very dependable and require no modification or specialized brake control unit in the tow vehicle.

Emergency breakaway stopping is just a cable attached to the hitch that pulls the lever on the brakes if the trailer comes loose. There is also the “thump and bump” as the coupler is compressed on braking and released on acceleration. Some operators find this to be annoying.

The information from Bill Nalle’s article will continue on Friday of this week.  Friday’s post will be about Couplers, Chains and Winch/Bow Supports.

The first segment of the article can be found by clicking here.


  1. Excellent articles ….. However you might mention

    That most States require brakes on all axles when the Total weight including the weight of the trailer exceeds 3000 lbs.

    And…. With disc brakes you must use a 5 prong plug or a 5 to 7 adapter.

  2. The type of brakes depends on where you travel.
    On the flat, surge brakes with drums or disc work well.
    In the mountains or in heavy traffic areas nothing stops like electric brakes.
    This is why top of the line trailers offer both, electric with surge back-up.
    Len Thomas

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