The boating traffic over Mount Slide, Victoria, at Easter is always heavy, with everyone heading to Lake Eildon to take advantage of the last flush of autumn weather. On this day it was bumper-to-bumper and crawling along. Once over the top and heading down the other side, the cause for the delay became apparent.
It started with eskies, sleeping bags, fishing rods and other camping gear, along with pieces of blue fibreglass strewn along the side of the road. A little further along was a boat and trailer upside-down and a further 50m along was an SUV on its side. The local volunteer fire brigade was looking after the scene and the occupants of the SUV were badly shaken, but not injured.
On the way home a few days later, the same volunteer fire brigade was manning a Driver Reviver rest stop, handing out coffee and biscuits to motorists who stopped for a break. I asked what had happened on Mount Slide.
The boat had been loaded with camping gear, food and other items including spare fuel in jerry cans. They had been placed toward the rear of the boat. As the rig went over the saddle of the mountain, it was affected by side winds that were not apparent on the climb up. As it picked up speed going down the hill, it started swaying due to the side wind and this was exaggerated by the incorrect weight distribution on the towing hitch.
The swaying placed sideways stress on the wheels and a wheel bearing gave way, causing the whole rig to collapse to the left, rolling the boat over and snapping the hitch in the process. The SUV was now only connected to the boat trailer by the safety chains. Panicking, the driver braked heavily, causing the boat to surge into the back of the SUV. The driver swerved, the safety chain shackles parted, and the trailer separated – but not before the lateral pull of the chains tipped the SUV.
It was very lucky that no-one was hurt. A perfectly good boat was destroyed, a long-anticipated Easter break ruined and serious injuries narrowly avoided.
BEFORE YOU HIT THE ROAD
A lot of attention is focussed toward on-water safety and that is a vital message. However, boating safety starts when you leave home with the boat in tow. Whether you are travelling a short distance or on a longer trip, towing your boat requires preparation, practice and vigilance.
There are legal requirements regarding maximum towing capacity. This is based on the car and the towing hitch. Check that you are within the limits. Towing puts extra demands on a car, particularly on its cooling system and brakes. Vehicle manufacturers may also recommend higher tyre pressures in the rear wheels when towing. Most of this information can be found in the vehicle’s handbook.
TRAILER AND HITCH CHECKS
Trailers need regular checks and maintenance. While the boat is in the water, take time to check the trailer frame for wear, cracks and any damage. Pay particular attention to bends and joints, springs and welded areas. Inspect the rollers to make sure they are rotating freely and not worn or brittle with age. Tyres should have plenty of tread and be in good condition without any cracking. Make sure the wheel nuts are properly tightened and check tyre pressures. Wheel bearings should be in good condition and well packed with lubricating grease. If there are signs of wear or corrosion they should be replaced. More about wheel bearings later.
Pay particular attention to the towing hitch and safety chains – check for condition and serviceability. While doing this, check the towing ball on the car hitch for security. The winch cable or strap and the safety chain should also be inspected. If the trailer has a braking system, check that it is in working order and fluids topped up if applicable. Finally, turn on the lights and view them for correct operation, including the brake lights and indicators.
A WORD ON D-SHACKLES
There is a lot of chatter on the internet about fines being issued for boaters not using shackles that meet Australian Standard AS 2741-2002 or another equivalent recognised standard, and have a break-load limit rated at least 1.5-times greater than the Aggregate Trailer Mass.
Looking further into this issue, it is not clear-cut. In Queensland, for instance, it is ‘recommended’ that they are used. Victoria’s VicRoads only provides advice that safety chains must be able to withstand longitudinal and vertical loads, while South Australian police strongly urge the public to make the change to a rated D-shackle for peace of mind when towing. Regardless, given the value of your boat and trailer, any extra cost of a ‘rated’ shackle is cheap insurance. It makes sense to use them.
A properly loaded and balanced trailer will provide the best handling on the road. The centre of gravity should be as low as possible with weight evenly distributed. About 60 per cent of the boat’s weight should be on the front half of the trailer, with the remaining 40 per cent at the rear. Don’t forget the load limits on the towing hitch.
The boat must be properly secured to the trailer. The winch cable/strap should be tight and the boat safety chain attached to the D-ring on the bow. The stern should be secured with tie-downs. Ratchet-type tie-downs are popular as they can be easily tightened and released.
Anything stored in the boat should be properly secured and stored as low as possible. Check that mirrors give clear views behind on both sides of the trailer.
Safe towing is a skill that takes practice and patience. It takes longer to get moving and longer to pull up because of the extra weight behind. Add extra distance to cars in front and be aware of the bigger spaces needed to merge and the longer distances required to safely overtake. Taking into account the overall weight of your rig, travel at a speed that allows you to react and stop safely.
When stopping, try to stop with the car and trailer in a straight line. If you have an electric or air-assisted braking system on the trailer, set it up so the trailer brakes lead first when braking. A gentle touch on the trailer brakes only should correct side sway if it occurs.
Think of other road users and be courteous if travelling slower than the traffic flow. Pull over where safe and allow faster traffic to overtake. Better still, use rest areas to stop and allow traffic to pass while you do a walk around the trailer to check security, tyres, tie-downs etc.
If you are new to towing get some practice in before a trip. Find a quiet area and test acceleration and stopping. Watch how the trailer ‘cuts in’ when turning and get used to the turning circle. Using lower gears can assist with braking on down slopes and also gives added power to the wheels when climbing.
Reversing is an area that scares many people. Like most things, practice makes it easier. Always try to start off with the car and boat in a straight line. Have someone guide you from behind and agree on hand signals to communicate. Yelling out instructions doesn’t work and can be confusing.
A good tip is to place your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel: when you turn the wheel, the back of the trailer will move in the direction your hand moves. Small movements of the wheel are best – and wait for the trailer to react.
I did promise to mention more about trailer wheel bearings. Despite regular maintenance, over the years I have had wheel bearings fail a number of times and have had to replace them on the side of the road. Murphy’s Law prevails and it is either pouring with rain or blazing hot when it happens! Learning how to replace a wheel bearing and carrying spares, including grease, is a good idea.
I have always used spring-loaded bearing caps with a grease nipple on the end. They are often known as ‘bearing buddies’ or ‘bearing mates’. They allow you to keep grease in the bearing under pressure from the spring. Don’t pump too much grease into the cap or the seal at the rear may be pushed out.
The single biggest threat to wheel bearing life is immersion in water – it emulsifies the grease and breaks it down. This can’t be avoided when launching, however there are some things you can do to prolong their life: service them by removing, cleaning and repacking with grease regularly. Once every three months is okay, but more often is required if trailering the boat constantly.
Give the bearings time to cool before launching the boat. Placing hot wheel bearings into cool water causes the water to be drawn into the bearing, accelerating the breakdown of lubricating grease. Finally, use high-quality marine-grade bearing grease.
Safely towing your boat to the water is a satisfying part of boating. If you know your vehicle and equipment, have the right attitude and approach to the drive and regularly check and maintain your trailer, you should arrive safely every time and hopefully avoid the situation I witnessed at Mount Slide.
Finally: be aware that laws change from state to state and check with your local road traffic authority to clarify issues you are uncertain about.