Towing the line

Mark Robinson | VOLUME 23, ISSUE 1
Serious boat damage often occurs well away from the water.
Trailer towing incidents account for a big percentage of our claims. If you tow your boat, you need to sit down and pay attention…

I magine looking in your rear view mirror and seeing the gap between your car and boat widening suddenly. It’s a new boat, it’s your first trip to the boat ramp and things aren’t looking good. As you hit the brakes, the back of the car swings over the centre line, while the boat and trailer lurch violently from side-to-side. You bring the whole plot to a stop, jack-knifed in the centre of the road. Your heart’s pounding and your hands are shaking on the wheel. But you’re lucky – this time. No one is hurt and the boat, trailer and car are mostly unscathed. Turns out you forgot to lock the tow hitch to the tow ball. A simple oversight with serious consequences. Fortunately, you did ensure your safety chains were attached properly to the tow bar. Otherwise, things could have been a lot worse.

Or how about this… You were only going to tow your boat a short distance, so didn’t think you’d need to secure it with tie-down straps. So you’re approaching the intersection, when suddenly the light turns red. You’re going a bit fast and have to stop quickly as there are cars waiting to turn in front of you. As you hit the brakes, your expensive new ski boat slides forward on the rollers with enough force to snap the winch post like a toothpick. The boat then launches off the trailer and over the roof of your car. A tonne of fibreglass and metal is now airborne and headed for the unsuspecting cars in front of you. In this case, a gruesome outcome was avoided by pure luck, the boat glancing off another car before coming to a shattered stop.

Both of the above scenarios are drawn directly from Club Marine’s own claims files and illustrate how things can turn seriously ugly when people fail to pay attention to their trailers and boats. Well over half of Club Marine’s total 150,000 or so policyholders own trailer boats. And close to 150 of them have reason to contact us each year to report serious towing incidents and damage to their boats, trailers and/or cars.

An analysis of our claims database shows that at least half of all ‘in-transit’ incidents and claims are related to driver actions and efforts to avoid hitting objects or other vehicles. The remainder can be broadly broken down into structural or maintenance issues on the trailers or failure to adequately secure the boat to the trailer and the trailer to the towing vehicle.

Trailer boating offers immense freedom, the ability to hook up your rig and tow it to your destination of choice, whether simply down to the local ramp or interstate, during your annual holidays. But too many times, a planned day of fun afloat turns into a roadside inconvenience at best, or a major incident involving serious damage or even injury.

There are three main aspects to safer trailering:

• The attitude and actions of the driver of the towing vehicle

• Knowing your equipment and its correct use

• Regular trailer maintenance

These three areas tend to overlap somewhat, but to drive home some points we will look at each of them in turn.

A key aspect of safe trailering is the attitude and actions of the driver. Attitude covers many variables, from taking care to not overdo the amber liquid the night before setting out, making sure to get a good night’s sleep and keeping alcohol consumption on the water to an absolute minimum – or preferably zero. A day at sea is tiring enough without starting out behind the eight ball.


One common problem is that we are often too eager to get to the water – so much so sometimes, that our preparation time can be sacrificed on the race to the ramp. It’s crucial that drivers carefully inspect their rigs prior to departure and even use a pre-trip checklist before heading off with trailer and boat. This is especially important for novice boaties, as they need to develop a regular routine before venturing forth on the road. The checklist should include ensuring the tow hitch is properly snugged down and that the safety chains are securely attached. All trailer lights should be checked, the winch should be properly locked, the brake lock-out secured and the bow eye safety chain should be fastened securely. All tie-downs need to be checked and tightened if needed. Speaking of tie-downs, all vessels resting on trailers should be secured by tie-down straps at the transom. Without adequate restraint at the rear, boats can bounce on the rollers and skids, causing instability and hull and trailer damage. If you’re going out with family or friends, don’t be shy about asking them to give the checklist another going over. If you haven’t had your rig out for a while, and it’s stored outdoors, you should also undo your bungs to ensure you’re not towing a bilge-full of extra weight in the form of accumulated rain water.

Once out on the road, it is important for the driver to keep in mind that towing substantially decreases the towing vehicle’s acceleration and braking performance and reduces vehicle manoeuvrability considerably. It can also affect vehicle stability. Thinking ahead – way ahead – is essential when approaching traffic lights, roundabouts, school zones, pedestrian crossings, strip shopping malls or any other areas where sudden braking or turning may be necessary.

Slow and steady, with a good lookout ahead and no distractions, is the ideal. Anticipation here is important: “Is that car up ahead going to pull out from that park?”; “Is that old lady with the trolley about to step off the curb?”; “Should I keep an eye on those kids kicking the ball in the park?” The rule here is to expect the unexpected and always drive with enough margin to be able to stop in time, if needed.

Passing other vehicles with your boat under tow must be approached with extreme caution, remembering that the added weight of the boat and trailer will decrease acceleration – sometimes dramatically. If you must pass a slower vehicle, be sure to allow plenty of extra distance before you pull back in, as you have to allow for the extra length of your trailer. And be sure to keep your passing move as smooth as possible. Any sudden moves or turns can destabilise your rig, instigating a weave that can turn into something a lot worse.

Road conditions need to be taken into account, too. If the road is wet, the extra weight of the boat and trailer and the reduced friction between road and tyres generally mean that you should at least double the distance between your car and other vehicles in front. The same goes over rough surfaces or dirt roads. The less time your tyres spend in contact with the road, the less control you have.

You also need to be aware of the total width of the boat/trailer and make allowances for it when approaching a gap. One of our most common claims scenarios involves people passing other vehicles on the left-hand side, as when approaching a right-turning vehicle from behind. If you’re in a rural area, chances are the verge is dirt or gravel and likely tapering away from the road. If you’re travelling at normal open road speeds, chances of something going wrong multiply significantly. The dynamic relationship between a trailer and car is not the most stable, so when a variable is introduced, like running the trailer wheels off the road and down a slight incline, you’ve got a recipe for disaster. The trailer begins to slew off the road on the dirt, pulling the rear of the car with it. Where the whole rig ends up when it finally comes to a halt is now mostly beyond the control of the driver. It’s likely our claims line will ring soon after.

So, if you are faced with having to run close to, or over the edge the bitumen, do it at a sensible speed. Slower is definitely better in this scenario.


You should be fairly well-acquainted with your trailer and its equipment, but you also need to know the towing capabilities of your tow vehicle. Your particular vehicle’s towing rating (as in weight) should be listed in the vehicle handbook, however, you should contact the manufacturer if you’re not sure of your vehicle’s towing capabilities.

Each state and territory has differing regulations governing towing and it’s the responsibility of owners to ensure that your rig complies completely with local regulations. These regulations can be readily sourced online or through your local police station or road authorities. Invariably, they will stipulate various towing weights and widths and include requirements for various kinds of braking setups according to weight. You need to make yourself familiar with all relevant regulations and, importantly if you’re taking your boat interstate, you need to make sure you comply with that state’s regs. Fines can result and ignorance is no defence.

But having a tow vehicle which is legally capable of towing your boat and trailer is only the first step. You also need to consider the weight distribution of the boat and trailer and here the set-up should be such that approximately 60 per cent of the boat’s weight should be positioned on the front half of the trailer and forty on the rear, bearing in mind, of course, the limits of your towbar’s weight capacity.

Circumstances which can affect this include how you have loaded your vessel. A few scuba tanks and weight-belts or some heavy game fishing rods, reels and tackle boxes, along with a couple of heavily-packed ice boxes, can significantly alter weight distribution, as can fitting a heavier outboard than when the rig was first set up. Another variable can be if the boat’s fuel tank has been replaced with a larger unit. Often these two things go together, with multiplying results.

A poorly set-up trailer, where the craft is positioned too far to the rear, is not uncommon and is relatively easy to fix by shifting the winch post forward until the desired weight balance is achieved. Some modifications to the position of the trailer rollers may also be required, but a correctly-balanced rig should be easily achievable. It cannot be too highly stressed just how important this balance is to safe towing, as a rig with the weight too far back is prone to weaving from side to side at highway towing speeds or in a cross wind, with resulting scary-to-disastrous consequences.

As well as front-to-back, weight distribution when loading your craft, you should also consider side-to-side load distribution. Some vessels have side-mounted fuel and or water tanks and these should be filled in such a way so as to create a balanced load. A further factor to consider is the centre of gravity of the boat and trailer, which should be kept as low as possible by storing equipment at floor level and forward, wherever possible. For example, those scuba tanks should go in the cabin and on the floor between the bunks and never on the rear bench seat. Keeping the entire rig balanced not only immeasurably improves towing safety, but will also prolong the life of your trailer’s tyres.

All states have a legal requirement for safety chains, which must be strong enough to prevent your boat trailer hitting the ground should the trailer become detached from the tow ball. A short stroll around any boat ramp will reveal that many rigs either have undersized chains for their loads or only one chain, where there should, ideally, be two. Check your own rig and, if in doubt, buy some more robust chain and have it fitted. A further tip is to cross the chains over each other to form a sling, which will be more effective in supporting your unattached tow hitch. The chains should be long enough to allow turning, but not so long that they drag on the ground.


Trailer maintenance is the third component of safer towing. It may be the bugbear of recreational boaters, but, as any casual stroll around a boat ramp will reveal, it is an area that demands much more attention from many boat owners. Trailer brakes are an example. Rusting brake rotors are not uncommon and indicate that brakes are either not working, or need urgent maintenance and adjustment. Where water restrictions are not in force, your trailer’s brakes should be flushed with fresh water, especially if you spend time on saltwater. Where hose-down facilities are available at the ramp, this should be done immediately after launching your craft. Alternatively, you can take a plastic jerry can of water from home and pour it over your brakes. This simple exercise will go a long way towards keeping brakes functioning. Naturally, it should be repeated after retrieval, preferably at the ramp to begin with and then at home. Brakes should also be adjusted regularly to ensure they work properly when needed.

Winch cables and straps are other items which commonly seem to be neglected, as evidenced by that tell-tale stroll around a boat ramp. Any problems here have the potential to result in severe personal injury in the event of the cable or strap breaking, or the craft coming loose on the trailer whilst being towed. Ideally, the safety chain between the winch post and the bow eye should be equipped with a turnbuckle in order to keep the chain in tension. Safety chains with too much slack have a much greater chance of failing if the winch lock or winch cable fails whilst travelling.

Trailer leaf springs should also be hosed thoroughly when washing down the rig and spraying on some fish oil or water dispersant spray can help reduce rusting of the leaves and thus extend spring and shackle life. Rollers, likewise, should be washed thoroughly and checked from time to time for movement or looseness.

Trailer tyre pressures and tread depth should be vigilantly maintained and wheel bearings need special attention on a regular basis. At the start of the boating season is a good idea if you live in the southern states. As far as the bearings go, various proprietary devices are available to keep grease within the hubs by means of spring pressure, which reduces water ingress when the hubs are dipped during launching and retrieving. These do have a demonstrated level of effectiveness, provided the grease – which should be marine grade – is regularly replenished as it works its way out past the inner seals.

Tyres need special attention as their condition has a huge effect on your rig’s behaviour on the road. The tyres need to be the right specification for your trailer. They also need to be run at the right pressure and should have adequate tread depth to deal with wet weather towing. You should regularly check tyres for wear and any damage to the sidewalls and, if you’ve bought your rig secondhand, check to make sure your tyres haven’t been retreaded. It’s not uncommon for older trailers to sport cheaper retread tyres – an unnecessary compromise and risk in this day and age.

Another oft-overlooked aspect of trailering is ensuring that all lighting is working. Common sense should apply here, but far too often doesn’t. This is another issue that shows up in our claims data, with many incidents of boats and trailers being ‘rear-ended’ at night due to non-or malfunctioning trailer lights. People behind you need to know you’re there and which way you’re going to turn. Without lights, they’re in the dark. Literally.


Safe towing also means checking your rig during the journey and ideally this should be done around every 100km or so. You should pull over into a protected roadside area, well away from passing traffic, and do a spot check on the trailer coupling (these can sometimes work loose), safety chains, electrical connections and tyres. Checking your hubs for excessive heat is also advisable, but be aware that a failing wheel bearing or dragging brake can generate a lot of heat, so check them cautiously. Remember, too, that the consequences of catastrophic wheel bearing failure are magnified considerably in the case of single-axle trailers, where a failed bearing can cause a wheel to come off and lead to the boat and trailer being seriously damaged or destroyed.

Carrying a set of spare wheel bearings – and the tools to fit them – is highly recommended. The tools should include a sturdy hydraulic jack with enough capacity to lift your laden boat and trailer, a strong jack stand to add support and a pair of wheel chocks to prevent any movement of the raised rig. Extra marine grease should be a part of your trailer tool kit, too.

We all need to keep in mind that to enjoy our boating, those of us with trailer boats need to get them to water. Overwhelmingly, our claims data tells us that transit incidents can be sheeted home to the owner/driver. While there are cases where other vehicles have been found to be at fault, as in collisions, it can nearly always be demonstrated that being more alert or driving defensively might have resulted in a better outcome.

A well-maintained trailer and secured boat is not hard to achieve and a little thought and effort put in before you head out can mean years of trouble-free towing and boating. If in doubt, always go to the experts. There are many specialist trailer repair and maintenance companies around and if you have a ‘name’ trailer, you can always consult the manufacturer.

“In so many cases we see, it’s obvious that more attention to the road, or better maintenance or boat and trailer set-up would have saved a call to our claims line,” says Club Marine National Claims Manager, Phil Johnson. “It’s one of those areas where the actions and attitudes of boat owners have a major influence on whether their day on the bay ends happily or not.

How to-Safety