For the vast majority of its life, the boat sits on a trailer. If the supports and rollers are not correctly positioned, the result can be a gradual distortion of the boat’s running surfaces. That will affect the way the boat runs and performs. Just as importantly, every time the boat is to be used, the owner depends on the trailer to get to the ramp and back home again. If the boat slips into the water and can be retrieved without any hassle, boating times can be very rosy.
Take good care of that trailer, ensure it’s kept properly maintained, and it will repay your love and care many times over.
Like most boating maintenance tasks, a little work frequently applied will have the trailer in top shape at all times with minimal effort. This is especially applicable when boating in saltwater. Incidentally, there’s no problem with boating in saltwater. I know some boaties who won’t go anywhere other than freshwater and so miss out on countless good spots. I’ve had boats in saltwater all my life, both moored and trailered, and simple maintenance has avoided any trouble from the salt with the boats, engines, drives or trailers.
The easiest task, yet the most vital, is a thorough freshwater hose-down after the trailer has been used; this is essential after retrieving from saltwater, but advisable at all times. Even freshwater can have contaminants that will be detrimental. This should be done as soon as possible after hauling out the trailer – at the ramp if there’s a tap available, otherwise as soon as possible at home. Direct the hose to give a good blast on all the surfaces, including right under the boat, inside the wheels and around the brakes, under the mudguards, and into all the angles, crevices and tricky bits as well as on the ends of the rollers’ bearings.
Every time the trailer is hooked up, take 20 seconds and ensure that the park, number plate, brake, and turn lights are working correctly. While checking the lights, look for any signs of condensation or water. I’ve seen trailers merrily bowling along with half a swimming pool sloshing around inside a light. If there’s any moisture at all, look to replace the seals on the light – or the whole light if need be. Many lights are designed to be submersible and keep dry, but not all stay that way over time. Even lights that are removed before launching can get internal condensation.
CARRY A SPARE
A spare wheel for the trailer should be carried, as rarely will a tow vehicle’s spare fit, or at least have one of those ‘puncture repair’ pressure cans. Keep an eye on the tread and sidewalls of all trailer tyres; they need to retain a good grip in wet or slippery conditions, which also means they have to be kept inflated at the recommended pressure. A jack that can operate safely on the trailer will be needed and, again, that will often have to be a separate item from the jack that came with the car. Owners may be lucky and find that the car’s wheel brace will fit the trailer’s wheel nuts – but try it to be sure. Keep a pair of collapsible chocks in the tow vehicle, too. A pair of warning cones can also be useful, especially if it’s necessary to stop on a freeway or busy road.
It’s worth running an eye over the trailer every time the boat is retrieved. With the boat off, every part of the trailer can be easily seen, and it will probably be dry rather than wet as it would be after launching the boat. Check for any signs of rust on the trailer frame or on the insides of the wheels and around the brakes and suspension, as well as on the rollers or supports, the trailer coupling, brake activating mechanism and the safety chains. If any signs of impending trouble are spotted, make some notes and arrange to get repairs done as soon as possible.
Fixing any rust or other problems early on will be much quicker and less expensive than waiting until they’ve become a full-blown drama. It can save a lot of inconvenience, and maybe embarrassment.
Every six months or so give the trailer a thorough check; it’s preferable to do so with the boat off the trailer so it can be inspected everywhere. Apply a light coating of marine grease to the visible bits of the rollers’ bearings, to the trailer coupling, across the surfaces of the suspension springs and on the ends of the wheel studs. Spray some water-displacing lubricant over the winch, check that the wiring and lights are free of corrosion and that the wiring insulation is in good order.
Particularly check any wiring under the mudguards as it’s possible on bumpy roads for the wheels to ride higher and touch wiring that hasn’t been tightly secured; that can rip away insulation or even the entire wire. Take a look at the trailer registration label – make sure it’s not out of date and that its holder is properly fitted.
Jack up each wheel in turn (after chocking the opposite wheel, of course, and with the trailer on
a level surface) and rotate the wheel to see that it turns freely. Grip each side of the wheel and try to wobble it – there should not be any lateral movement. If the wheel is tight to turn or has sideways free-play, or if there are any untoward noises, get the bearings and brakes checked as soon as possible, and don’t tow the trailer far until this is done.
If mechanical brakes are fitted, check the cables for free-play and ensure there is no slackness between connections. For hydraulic brakes, check the fluid level and ensure the fluid is clean. Look over the activating mechanism at the front of the trailer and see that it is clean and free to move easily. With the reverse lock-out for the brakes not engaged, gently try to reverse the tow vehicle to see that the trailer brakes operate correctly. Do that in a clear and appropriate area in case they don’t work.
Another simple check is to carefully touch each wheel hub immediately after a lengthy tow: hubs should be cool or maybe slightly warm, but if they are hot it could mean a bearing or brake is binding. Don’t try this though after towing down a long hill where the brakes would have been in operation.
Returning to the front of the trailer, check the safety chains and the shackles used to secure them to the tow vehicle. Replace any worn or rusted parts, including the hard points on the vehicle to which the safety chains are hooked. Look over the winch and cable or strap to see that they are in good condition.
Check the receptacle on the tow vehicle for the trailer’s electrical connection cord. The terminals should be bright and corrosion-free – on both the trailer plug and the vehicle receptacle. Work along the length of the trailer wiring and ensure all the insulation is in good condition, and that the wiring is properly secured. Have a look where the wiring on the tow vehicle comes out of the receptacle and see that it is in good condition.
GO WITH THE PRO’S
Unless the owner genuinely knows what to do, it’s worth having a professional mechanic service the wheel bearings and brakes at least once a year. It shouldn’t cost much, and it’s reassuring to know they’re in good working condition. If towing long distances, it’s advisable to know how to change a wheel bearing and to keep a spare in the car boot in case of emergency.
Once a year, arrange for a competent boat dealer or marine mechanic to check the rollers and supports on the trailer. They take quite a beating as they carry the weight of the boat across all the bumps of roads and ramps, and it’s not that difficult for some of them to become worn or misaligned or to need a new bearing. As well as possibly damaging the boat’s strakes or running surfaces, faulty rollers can also make the boat harder to launch and retrieve. Have any worn rollers or support beds replaced, and check that there is proper support right under the boat’s transom. Any significant gap to the transom from the backmost rollers or supports can eventually lead to the bottom of the boat developing a hook, which will affect how the boat runs.
Watch how much equipment is loaded into the boat. As the months and years go by, all the gear added onboard may not be noticed, and the resulting extra weight will not only reduce the boat’s performance (and add to the fuel costs), but can lead to loading the trailer beyond its design limits. Try finding a public weighbridge to weigh the fully loaded, and fully fuelled, boat and trailer – the result may just come as a shock. Check with the boat dealer where the trailer was bought, or the trailer manufacturer, and make sure the total weight is within the trailer’s specifications.
Overall, just be aware of the trailer – it’s very easy to take it for granted until it’s too late and something goes wrong. Owners not wanting to do it themselves should, at the very least, get the boat dealer or mechanic to thoroughly check the trailer when the boat/engine is taken in for service – which should occur at least annually.
To state the obvious, trailerable boats need a trailer, but when buying a boat many buyers don’t necessarily pay as much attention to the trailer as they should.
New trailerable boats are mostly offered as boat/motor/trailer packages and it’s certainly worth looking at this option, as the dealer or manufacturer will have fitted the trailer to suit the boat. And, as it’s a package, the price will probably be quite reasonable. Used boats are also mostly offered with a trailer, which will be included in the asking price. In any case, it’s advisable to do some homework and ask the seller a few questions – after all, it’s worth investing a little time to ensure the trailer the new dream boat will be towed home on is the right one.
It’s easy to get distracted by sales talk or that yearning to get the new toy on the water, so take pen and paper (or make a note on a phone, tablet or mobile device of choice) of what you see or want to ask.
Before setting off, check what load the towing vehicle is rated for. The towing rating can be found in the vehicle manufacturer’s handbook and should include a trailer weight capacity and a towball capacity. It wouldn’t be the first time a buyer discovered at the handover that their vehicle isn’t suited to the load.
When buying a used boat with trailer, it’s advisable to inspect the trailer just as scrupulously as the boat that’s sitting on top of it.
Firstly, find out whether the trailer is suited to the boat. Just because it’s cradled on it in the boatyard, or in someone’s driveway, doesn’t mean it’s a perfect match. The easiest way is to phone the trailer manufacturer (or Australian distributor if it’s an overseas model) and ask. Alternatively, contact the boat manufacturer and ask whether the trailer is suitable for the particular boat. When buying a boat and trailer at a dealer, they probably have the data there.
Next, find the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number). On older trailers, this may be stamped into the frame or on a label. Newer models will have an aluminium plate riveted to the trailer frame. If the VIN is missing, it will be necessary to re-apply through your local registration authority and an original proof of purchase will be required. Without a valid VIN on the frame, the trailer cannot be registered.
A good time to look over the trailer is when the boat is put on the water for a test drive. Ask the seller to hook it up to your vehicle to tow it – this is a good opportunity to identify any towing issues and test the brakes and lights. Then, with the boat in the water, take the opportunity to thoroughly inspect the trailer.
Check for signs of rust or damage, perhaps covered up with a quick paint job. Also check for any signs of shonky welding – bad welds can be a serious issue sooner or later. If the trailer is galvanised, check whether the finish shows signs of deterioration.
Check all cables, sockets and connections and ensure everything is wired up correctly. Look for anything that’s loose or that looks like it needs replacing. If the trailer has been maintained properly, you should also be able to see evidence of grease and lubrication on wheel bearings and the sliding coupling (if required), and you should also look for signs of recent work, such as new fasteners or nuts and bolts.
Tyres can tell tales, so check tread and wear. Excessive or uneven tyre wear can be caused by overloading, an unbalanced load on the trailer, or because the trailer has not been adjusted correctly to suit the load. If in doubt, have a reputable service department assess whether there’s an issue. And ideally there should be a spare wheel and tyre attached to the trailer. Check that they are in good condition and that the tyre is inflated.
Rollers and skids fulfil an important role: they support the boat correctly when on a trailer, and make launching and retrieving the boat easier. Look for worn or damaged parts. Also make sure the boat sits evenly on the trailer and that the rollers are all in direct contact with the hull.
Have a look at the winch – it should suit the trailer’s load capacity, even if the boat is lighter than the maximum capacity. Unravel the straps or chains from the drum; have a look at them and test whether they’re attached to the drum properly. Check the winch drum for rust or damage. Ensure the winch pawl is in good order. This is the part that locks the winch; it can become bent, which can cause the winch to release at any time – with obviously serious implications. If in doubt, replace the winch assembly. And never rely solely on the winch to retain the boat – there must be a safety chain fitted when towing. A winch’s life is roughly four years in saltwater, but it’s a relatively inexpensive and easy part to replace.
Wheel bearings, brakes and lights: if buying from a dealer, ask to see the service or inspection documentation. If buying privately, your best bet is to have the trailer inspected by a licenced marine repairer or service agent. Otherwise, look for a repair centre that services caravans or tradesman’s trailers.
And once you’ve ticked all the boxes, at least you’ll know that all is well behind you as you tow your way to your favourite spot for some quality time on the water.
Buyer beware …
A word on grey imports: while the boat might tick all the boxes, not all imported trailers can be registered in Australia. This could be due to the trailer being over-width or because it fails to comply with Australian Design Rules (ADR), which apply to the lights, the braking system, couplings, and general construction. You might also want to check if the trailer is galvanised to protect it from corrosion from saltwater exposure. Some trailerable boats imported from the US were only intended for freshwater usage, and the trailers may not be suitable for exposure to saltwater.