By Captain Mark Manes, NorCal/Lake Tahoe Chapter
I remember very vividly as a kid, the day that my Dad crushed his hand with the boat trailer. He was trying to hitch up my older brother’s boat and somehow managed to get his hand between the ball and the trailer hitch. As you can imagine, that image stuck in my brain and I will never forget it. Another fond childhood memory was when my Dad was trying to back our boat down the launch ramp when another accident happened. He unhooked the safety chain and apparently did not have the brake set tight enough on the electric winch because as he backed down the ramp, our boat rolled off the trailer on to the pavement. Since I was a kid, I kind of thought it was funny (if only there were cell phones to video that one), but my father didn’t.
In High School, I bought a 17’ Glastron with a 90HP Black Max outboard that was fairly heavy. It didn’t come with a trailer, so I grabbed my parents’ little trailer from their sunfish sailboat and threw my boat on there. The trailer was much too small for the boat, but I really didn’t care as long as I could get to the lake (Finger Lakes of NY) with my friends! My gutless tow vehicle, a 1983 Chevy S-10, could barely get the boat up the launch ramp. After towing several times, the trailer actually bent, and I almost had a serious accident.
I think all of us have one story or another of a bad trailering experience. I thought that this topic is a good one for the group as it relates to safety.
As I have gotten older (and sometimes wiser), I have slowly learned from my (and my father’s) past mistakes. I recently bought a boat that was located in Portland, Oregon. I spoke with the broker and asked that he make sure that the tires were good and that the wheel bearings were packed. He assured me that he had his mechanic check it all out and everything was good to go. When I got there, I noticed that the tires, while plenty of tread remained, were starting to crack at the sidewall. I had planned to spend the night at a friend’s house in Portland, so I towed it over there and we started to inspect more closely. The tires were indeed in good condition, except that they had a manufacture date of 1989!! We pulled the tires off and decided to check the bearings ourselves, of course they were full of water and rust. Needless to say, my overnight turned into three nights while I went around getting new bearings, seals, and tires.
THOSE PESKY WHEEL BEARINGS:
Wheel bearings are a funny thing, they always fail at the worst time and sometimes can have catastrophic consequences. Basically, the bearing looks like a bunch of small rollers and 2 metal races that just roll around the small needle bearings that are packed with a heavy grease. There is an inner and outer bearing and a rubber seal to help keep that grease in. If they get debris or water inside those little rollers, they will start to generate heat. As the bearing heats up, the grease will start to get thin and more heat will develop causing it to fuse to the spindle of the axle and then the wheel will stop turning, which is usually not a good thing travelling at highway speeds. My last boat came from Texas and had this exact thing happen, the wheel ended up taking out the fender when it broke off and then rolled down the freeway at 60mph on its own! Fortunately, no one was hurt and the boat survived the ordeal on I-10. One solution to this issue is adding “Bearing Buddies” to help protect the bearings. These are an inexpensive device which are simply attached to the outside of the hub (where the dust cap is in the diagram) and have a plate with a spring that keeps positive grease pressure on those bearings helping to keep water out. It is important to get your bearings serviced once in a while and make sure that the “Bearing Buddies” are full of grease at all times.
Tires are another thing that can bite you on a nice boating outing. No one wants to be stuck on a Sunday on the side of the road without a spare tire. You want to check to make sure the tires are relatively new (10 years or less) and don’t have any cracking on the sidewalls, carefully look close to the rim at the bead. Trailer tires are not the same as passenger car tires and have different weight ratings, always carry a spare, a way to jack it up, and a wrench to take the lugs off. Speaking of the jack, you may find that your vehicle jack will not work for your boat trailer so make sure you test it at home to make sure. If you do need to jack up the trailer, it needs to be done from the axle itself and not the trailer frame or it will just sag the springs and not actually life the wheels up. If you have a double axle trailer, you can use some blocks (I carry some as wheel chocks) and drive the trailer up on blocks on the other tire on the same side to help take the weight off your flat to make it easier to change. Keep in mind that your jack may not fit under the axle if the tire is flat, so do some trials beforehand. I usually make sure that the lugs are torqued to about 90lbs (check your trailer lug size for specs) and use a dab of “Never Seize” on the threads. I check the torque every year before heading out for the season as it doesn’t take long but could save you losing a wheel.
Brakes are required in CA on any trailer having a gross weight of 1500lbs or more. If your trailer has brakes, make sure they are working or you could be found at fault in an accident. Most of us have surge brakes on our trailers that work on simple hydraulics. At the hitch, there is essentially a slide mechanism that pushes a piston to force hydraulic fluid to your brakes on the trailer wheels. The concept is simple, if the vehicle towing slows down, the boat trailer wants to keep going, therefore it will slide that hitch and engage the brakes. The harder you brake, the more force on the piston and hydraulics. Most have either a mechanical or electrical lockout so when you back up it does not engage the brakes. Also, there should be a safety wire that connects the emergency brake actuator on the piston of the trailer to the tow vehicle to engage the brakes if the trailer ever gets disconnected. I have heard of some boats with electric brakes, but I personally have never had them on a boat trailer (electric + water = problems). Generally, you can feel if the brakes are working or not, it is pretty obvious when they are engaged. You want to inspect the back of each brake drum to ensure that there is no hydraulic fluid leaking out before you head off. Also, there is usually a reservoir on the hitch for the fluid, make sure that it also topped off. Most boat trailers only have brakes on one axle. When in doubt, have the brakes and bearings serviced by a professional or one of your friends that has done it before. There are many YouTube videos on how to do it yourself, it isn’t that hard to do (but very messy).
I have a good friend who is into British race cars, she has a shirt that says “Lucas Electric, the Prince of Darkness!” Several British car makers decided to use a company named Lucas Electric when building their cars which utilized a positive ground line instead of the traditional negative ground, the results were a nightmare with many electrical issues. Much like a British Car, boat trailer electrical can be a tad bit wonky.
I, like many of you, have spent countless hours cursing under trailers in random parking lots around the country trying to get lights working. Thankfully, trailer lighting has improved significantly with the advent of LED lights. Most of these are now sealed units that no longer rely on connections to the bulb that inherently will get corroded with water. I have replaced all of the old bulb style fixtures on my trailer with LED ones for peace of mind. Whenever I wire anything in a marine application, I always use heat shrink connectors and heat shrink tubing on all the connections. If you use the automotive style butt/crimp connectors, they will corrode over time and cause you headaches, spend the money and get the marine style with heat shrink. I also tend to apply a little dialectic grease to all of my connectors to help keep things from getting corroded. Be extra cautious in looking for spots where the wire can rub and chafe through to bare wire and cause a short or ground. There are so many rough and sharp edges on these trailers, you really need to spend time to put a wrap on anything that might rub with the movement of the trailer over time.
So, I just got my varnish work done and was towing the boat from my shop to my home a few months ago. The jack has a wheel and a latch to pivot 90 degrees so that it is out of the way, which I failed to do (duh!). This trailer is new to me and has a screw type ball lock on the hitch which I haven’t really used before. When I connected the hitch, I tightened it securely, but did not realize that the teeth of the mechanism were actually grabbing the flat of the ball where you would put a wrench and not the ball itself. Stupidly I left the parking lot and the jack bottomed out as I left, which then popped the hitch off the ball (because it wasn’t actually latched on to it). I was mortified that I had made such a stupid mistake that almost cost me a really bad accident, the chains saved me! My lesson in this one was to always slow down and double check everything before I take off. Make sure that your safety chains are crossed under the hitch and connected securely to the tow vehicle. The reason for crossing the chains is that it will create a cradle for the hitch to land in and hopefully keep it from hitting the ground. Be certain that the ball size is correct for the trailer being towed, it is usually stamped on the hitch itself. The height of the ball and hitch should make the boat level when towing, this is very important. If you don’t have the proper tongue weight, the trailer can start fish tailing or the front of the tow vehicle can get too light and cause an accident. There are plenty of online articles regarding tow vehicle ratings with weights and tongue weights, make sure that you are within specifications on your rig. The important thing to look at it GVWR of the tow vehicle which is the total weight of the car, the trailer, and all the contents of both, including gas and people. You don’t want to exceed those numbers, and should make sure that you are well under that number while towing.
TYPES OF TRAILERS AND AXLES:
When inspecting your trailer, it is important to understand the difference in construction materials and what that means. Steel trailers are the most common for our style of boats and can offer a very attractive painted look that can match the boat. They are perfect for FRESH water, not so great in the salt. If you have a solid tube trailer like mine, the salt can get inside the trailer and rot it out from the inside out. If you have a solid beam trailer (tube) pay close attention to any rust areas and have your trailer evaluated by a pro if you aren’t confident. I have heard of trailers breaking in half after they rust out from the inside! Aluminum and galvanized are another good option for a trailer and are salt water friendly. The only thing is that with these style trailers you still may have steel leaf springs and axles that are susceptible to corrosion. Aluminum trailers also can develop cracks, so you will want to inspect your trailer carefully once the boat is in the water to look for obvious issues.
Hope this article reminds everyone to at least check out their trailers before heading off to a show, I would hate for anyone to have an accident on the road.
Happy and Safe Boating!