Beyond the multitude of canoes, kayaks, and small skiffs, most of the larger boats that we use for fishing or water sports are kept on a trailer. There are some very basic advantages to keeping your boat on high dry ground.
Many nights when the rain is pouring, I am glad my boat is up on the trailer rather than possibly drowning at the dock. I also do not worry about the vandalism that my past boat suffered at the dock from degenerate river rats.
Finally, there is no additional charge for me to park my own boat in my driveway.
That said, there are some basic tips that every boater who uses a trailer should adopt. These are lessons that many of us have learned the hard way. You can learn from our mistakes.
First Lesson: Hook up your trailer safely.
This involves matching the correct trailer coupling with the proper size ball. A 2 inch coupling might easily drop onto a 1 7/8 inch ball but it can also easily jump off as well.
A rolling disconnect is a bad thing. Match up the ball with the coupling. Make sure the catch is locked down with a padlock or double nutted bolt. And, hook up the two safety chains to the hitch, frame or steel bumper of the tow vehicle. The driver who left his boat wrapped around the tree in the accompanying photo failed this first lesson.
Second Lesson: Make sure your lights, brakes, tires and wheel bearings are in good condition.
If you have bought a used trailer, you must get it inspected. This is a good time to go through the basic electrical and mechanics of your trailer. LED replacement lights are far better than filament bulbs.
Pack the wheel bearings in a good marine grade water proof grease. Lightly lube the brake mechanism (not the pads) and check the brake and drum thickness. Tires should have plenty of tread, proper pressure, and not be dry rotted (a common problem on old trailers). Finally, make sure your tag is up to date and securely attached.
Third Lesson: Practice backing up your trailer in a big open parking lot prior to launching your vessel.
Backing a trailer is a skill that is honed by experience. You do not want to learn how to do this in a busy boat ramp parking lot. Not only will you expose your inexperience, you will really perturb all the boaters waiting on you to figure which way you need to turn the steering wheel. In reverse, the boat moves opposite to the direction of the front wheels.
That is easily said, not so easily learned. Backing a trailer can only be learned by doing it.
Practice where you will not be delaying other boaters in their quest to go offshore.
Fourth Lesson: Once you feel comfortable with your ability to back up to and down a ramp choose a simple ramp to negotiate on an off day.
For example, a novice trying to back down the 90 degree angle of the Wicomico Shores public ramp on a Saturday morning is asking for an embarassing situation.
Better to use the DNR double ramp at Hallowing Point across from Benedict on a Tuesday afternoon for the first launch experience. Check out your launching sites in advance until you gain confidence.
Fifth Lesson: The intent of launching your boat from the trailer is to launch it in the water.
Do not loosen your connecting chain or release the trailer winch catch or cable until you have backed the boat and trailer into the water. Should you do this at the top of the ramp, very likely, your boat will be launched on the ramp which is also a very bad thing from a public relations and boat maintenance point of view.
Make sure the winch,cable is tight and your chain is connected prior to pulling your boat/trailer combo from the water.
I heard a story about Mike Sirk dropping his boat on the ramp because of this omission, but I have not seen him lately to verify the story.
Sixth Lesson: Once you back your trailer/boat combo into the water, put the transmission in park and engage the emergency brake.
For old timers like me with manual trannys, park the the tow vehicle in first gear, engage the emergency brake, and put a chock under the front driver side tire that has a line tied to the driver side rear view mirror. This extra effort is a whole lot better than fishing your boat, trailer and truck out of the water.
An old brake shoe makes a good chock with the hole for the line already in the assembly. Coming up the ramp, you can pull the loose chock into the truck cab with the attached line.
Seventh Lesson: Make sure your boat is well strapped to your trailer.
You never know when someone or something (most often a deer) will pull in front of you or force you to take an evasive maneuver. The inertia of the boat could be enough to separate an unbound vessel from its trailer. Your boat was not designed to be strewn across the road. Secure it to the trailer.
Finally: On long hauls, bring a spare tire or two with an easily accessible jack, grease gun, needed tools, and a couple extra wheel bearings.
I learned this one the hard way: My most miserable trailer mis-adventure was not with a boat trailer, but a little utility trailer that I bought from Northern Hydraulics (now known as Northern Tool Co.). I was hauling a 72 inch circular saw to be hammered and repaired at Carroll’s Saw Shop in Hamlet, North Carolina.
The wheel bearing burned out near Emporia, Virginia which is pretty much the halfway point. No auto repair shop in that area carried the metric bearing for the Chinese axle on that el cheapo trailer.
So, I chained the trailer to a tree at the Red Roof Inn and drove all the way back to Charlotte Hall where NAPA Dan Clarke had the proper part. Then, back to Emporia to fix the trailer before continuing to Hamlet. Now, I never make a long trip without a full inventory of repair parts, tools, and tires. Though an additional eight hours of driving was a nuisance, I do not have any real horror stories to share though I have trailered boats since my teenaged years for many thousands of miles.
Surely, you have seen hapless mariners who have separated their tow vehicles or boats from their trailers on the highway or lost their whole rig, truck and all, down the ramp. Follow these simple lessons and you will not find yourself in such dire straits.