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The Helpful Guide for Trailering Your Boat

By: Richard Crowder

Truck hauling boat trailer

If you do not already own a trailer for your boat, it is wise you do some pre-purchase homework. Trailer licensing and regulations are a provincial mandate and each province and territory in Canada has different rules and regulations.

Check out these requirements as they have tightened, in most cases over the past number of years, in the interest of increasing safety on the road. Enforcement has also increased, so it is in your best interest to know and adhere to the regulations affecting trailering within your jurisdiction.

First things first, ensure that your intended tow vehicle is capable of towing the boat and trailer you have in mind. A vehicle’s towing capacity, depending on its design, construction, and mechanicals, can vary from zero to well over ten thousand pounds. To know whether your boat and trailer package fits within the towing capacity of your vehicle, determine the total weight being towed. This includes the weight of the boat plus engine, plus onboard gear and gasoline, etc., plus the weight of the trailer.

Once you know the expected weight, you want to spread that weight across the trailer from front to rear so that approximately eight and fifteen percent of that total towed weight is concentrated on the ball coupler. This is called the tongue weight.

Eight percent tongue weight applies to heavier towed weights of four to six thousand pounds. Fifteen percent tongue weight applies to lighter towed weights of one to two thousand pounds. Either the winch stand or the trailer axle assembly (or both) can be adjusted fore and aft to achieve the desired tongue weight. It is essential you have the correct amount of tongue weight or the trailer will tend to fishtail if the tongue weight is too little, Or, if the tongue weight is too heavy, it will overload the rear suspension and affect the steering of the tow vehicle.

Once you know the tongue weight, it can be added to the tow vehicle weight plus the weight of all passengers and gear on board to determine if the total weight is within the GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating) of the tow vehicle. The rated GVWR is found in the vehicle’s owner’s manual. Exceeding this rating could affect the braking ability of the tow vehicle and put undue stress on the transmission, engine, suspension, and structural components. Exceeding this rating could also void any vehicle warranties.

Now that you know the towed weight, (i.e. the combined weight of the trailer plus boat and motor, plus liquids and gear on board) ensure that your trailer hitch is rated to carry that weight and its associated tongue weight. If the tongue weight is greater than it should be for your vehicle, you may want to consider a weight-equalizing hitch arrangement which transfers some of the tongue weight from the rear to the front of your tow vehicle.

You may not get to choose a brand or type of trailer as many runabouts, sport, and pontoon boats come packaged with a trailer from the boat manufacturer. Most of these by far will be bunk style trailers and with a single axle. Bunk style trailers, when set up properly, distribute the weight of the boat evenly on the bunks for better trailering and safer storage. A tip here is to wet those bunks whenever possible for greater ease of launching and retrieval of the boat, the boat will slide easier on wetted bunks.

A boat trailer can be as important to your boating enjoyment as the boat itself. While much attention is often paid to the boat, the trailer often suffers from neglect. Trailers live in a harsh environment of constant dampness and dirt(and salt in coastal regions). Neglect coupled with lack of use only amplifies the potential damage caused by these elements.

The construction of boat trailers has improved exponentially over the past few decades with better hitches, winches, electrical connector plugs, disc rather than drum brakes, “sealed” lighting fixtures, and “sealed” wheel bearings. Even tires have improved dramatically with more choices and better ratings. But all of these items need your attention on a regular basis to ensure a pleasant towing experience.

It is important to keep all exposed “working” components of your trailer regularly lubricated and protected from the ravages of water and weather at least twice per year, usually fall and spring, and at any other times as required. Even more important is to complete a safety checklist every time you use the trailer before towing it on public roads. Your checklist should include:

Hitch ball and coupler – before hitching the trailer to the tow vehicle, lightly lubricate the underside of the trailer coupler and the ball using a spray lubricant, or if not handy, wipe the oil from the tow vehicle engine oil dipstick with a paper towel and wipe the ball and coupler. Lubricate the shank of the ball mount and hitch receptacle periodically and always store the ball mount inside the tow vehicle when not in use. This prevents it being stolen and prevents you from banging into it as it sticks out behind your vehicle when the trailer is not attached. Cross the trailer safety chains over each other, once and only once, when connecting to the tow vehicle. Periodically check the reservoir on the surge brake coupler on the tongue (if your trailer is so equipped) to ensure that hydraulic brake fluid is at the proper level.

Tires – check trailer (and tow vehicle) tires for proper inflation according to the cold inflation rating printed on the tire’s sidewall. Proper inflation is critical to the life of the tire and to prevent it from overheating and suffering a blowout when being towed. Check the sidewalls for signs of cracking due to overloading, under-inflation, or UV damage. Check with anexpert if you even suspect a problem, there are few things scarier than a tire blowout while towing.

Tongue Jack – depending on the design, it is always a good plan to keep a shower cap, plastic bag, or similar protection over the top of the tongue jack to prevent rain water from getting inside the jack mechanism and causing rust. However possible, unless the jack is sealed from water intrusion, try to force lubricant into the jack to prevent internal rusting and keep it operating smoothly over the long term.

Light Check – after hooking up the trailer to the tow vehicle, plug in the trailer electrical connector to the tow vehicle. Both the trailer connector plug and the vehicle receptor socket should be appropriately covered to prevent moisture, dirt, and corrosion from affecting the electrical connections when not joined together. Check the working of all trailer lights prior to moving since they must be functional before you can legally tow on public roads. Also check all light fixtures for signs of cracking, damage, water intrusion, and loose mounting and repair or replace as needed.

Boat Tie Downs – check that your boat is securely tied down to the trailer. The winch should be in good, smooth operating condition and all moving parts should be periodically lubricated. Check condition of the winch strap. Any fraying whatsoever substantially reduces the capacity rating of a strap and you don’t want to be anywhere near one if it breaks while winching the boat onto the trailer. Replace a strap showing any signs of wear and tear. Most jurisdictions require the winch strap, winch safety chain, plus two stern tie down straps to secure the boat to the trailer. Some jurisdictions require a total of four or six tie down straps in addition to the winch strap and safety chain depending on the length and weight of the boat. Some require every tie down strap to have a weight rating visibly showing and that each strap be capable of holding one-half the weight of the loaded boat. Some require pontoon boats to be cross-strapped at both the bow and the stern. Check the requirements of your particular provincial or territorial jurisdiction. Some enforcement officers expect your boat to be tied down such that if your boat and trailer were turned upside down, the boat would not budge.

Some additional quick tips:

Never trailer with a boat’s canvas top erected. It was never meant to withstand highway speeds and only acts as a “sail” that severely reduces fuel economy. Make your trips with a trailering cover and/or cockpit and bow covers in place. If the boat is being trailered without covers, remove or store away all loose items so they don’t blow away. Secure any other loose items in the boat with bungee cords or mooring lines so they don’t shift or cause damage. Remove as much weight as safely possible from your boat and transport these items in your tow vehicle if you can.

Check to ensure the lower unit of your motor either has sufficient clearance between the propeller and the road so that it won’t get damaged in transit. If possible, tilt it up to trailering position, or in the case of some outboard motors insert the trailering support bracket.

Try to trailer with as little fuel in the boat as possible in order to keep the trailered weight low. Fill up your boat when you get to your destination, or at least save yourself as much hard mileage as you can.

Once you have started to tow, pull off the road after a few minutes of highway speeds and do a full check of the trailer and its load. Check all tire sidewalls and wheel bearings of both the trailer and tow vehicle for excessive heating. If you cannot comfortably hold your hand on any of these surfaces, then you have a wheel bearing or sticking brake, or an overloading or tire pressure problem that needs to be addressed. Check that the trailer safety chains, all tie downs and boat covers are secure and do another light check to make sure your connections are still secure.

When you get to the launch ramp, do not launch immediately. Check that your bearings and brakes have cooled down to ambient temperature so the cold water does not cause damage. While you are waiting, remove your tie down straps and boat covers, insert and tighten the stern drain plug, and load all your gear aboard.

If the launch ramp is more than one boat wide, then, if possible, wait for the ramp position that is on the driver’s side of the tow vehicle (i.e. the right hand ramp when looking from the top of the ramp). By using this ramp, you will be looking in the driver’s side mirror which is closer to you and not convex, therefore offering a better perspective than the passenger side.

If your trailer has surge brakes, which most do, you probably will not be able to back the loaded trailer up a hill as the trailer brakes will lock. There is a pin that can be inserted in the trailer coupler to allow this, but remember to remove this pin before you do any road trailering or you will not have any brakes!

The freedom and flexibility that comes with trailering your boat are well worth observing the tips outlined above. The safer you are before you hit the road, the better your trailering experiences will be, and that means more time on the water for you.

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