Boat towing safety tips
Recently, I read that more than 95% of recreational boats in the US are trailerable so it stands to reason that if you are reading this article you are one of the 95-percenters. And if you trailer your boat on a regular basis you probably have more than a few stories about things that went wrong, or could have gone very wrong, if luck, or skill, wasn’t on your side.
Let’s face it, boat trailering looks easier than it is. I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked at Boatman in disbelief, while we were trailering our 23’ Chaparral down the interstate, when some yahoo would cut off our Suburban. Or the times we’d feel such empathy when we would see a vehicle with a boat in tow, stopped on the side of the road, knowing that could easily be us if we blew a tire or the trailer seized. For those of you who haven’t had a good day turn bad, let’s keep it that way by sharing a few tips to help ensure you are staying safe on the road when trailering your boat.
First on your checklist should be making sure your vehicle has the capacity to tow your trailer (factoring in the size and weight of your boat) otherwise you are going to overheat your engine, among other unpleasantries, and that’s never a good thing. Check the owner’s manual to find your vehicle’s tow rating; the manual should also provide the maximum loaded weight and maximum tongue weight of a trailer that the tow vehicle is capable of towing. And since towing is hard on your vehicle you may want to consider using fully synthetic oil as we have found this to be helpful in keeping our engine cooler. And lastly, never pull your boat in overdrive.
Turn Wide and Brake Slowly:
Turning a vehicle with a trailer behind it requires extra wide turns as your trailer has a tighter turning ratio than your tow vehicle. This takes practice as it’s not instinctual, but if you aren’t careful you’ll take out a curb (or something worse) so be sure to position your tow vehicle on the outside of the lane to allow for a wide turn. And don’t forget that your trailer, boat and full fuel tank is thousands of extra pounds meaning that you need to allow plenty of room when changing lanes, exiting, or stopping as it’s going to take extra time to slow down otherwise you risk jackknifing, something non-boaters simply don’t seem to comprehend when driving too close to tow vehicles on busy highways. The same goes for acceleration as it takes much longer when towing a boat; always take this into account when considering passing another vehicle.
The three most common types of hitches are the weight-carrying hitch, the weight-distributing hitch, and the fifth-wheel hitch (otherwise known as a gooseneck). When purchasing a hitch, refer to the recommendations of the tow vehicle and trailer manufacturer to ensure it’s right for the type and weight of your trailer. And make sure the hitch allows for the connection of safety chains, which are required by most states. As for Boatman and me, we always use our weight-distributing system when traveling long distances as we feel this is the safest choice, not to mention it keeps the boat from swaying which is especially important if you encounter inclement weather during your trip.
Safety Chains & Tie-Down Straps
Safety chains should always be crossed underneath the hitch before attaching them to your tow vehicle, making sure the chains are adjusted so that they are not dragging on the ground. A safety chain should also be attached from the bow of your boat to the trailer post to ensure the boat won’t accidently slide off the back of the trailer. Tie-down trailer straps should be attached from the back of the boat to the trailer and from the bow of the boat to the trailer post to ensure the boat won’t move forward or backwards if you have to stop suddenly. Just remember to remove these straps before you launch, though Boatman and I wait to remove the bow strap and chain until we’ve backed our trailer into the water.
Federal law requires trailers to have taillights, brake lights, side marker lights, turn signals, and side and rear reflectors. Always check to make sure your wiring is properly connected and your brakes and lights are working. Unplug your lights before you back your trailer into the water so that you don’t burn out the bulbs; just remember to plug them back in once you’ve splashed your boat and are off the launch ramp.
Tires, Trailer Bearings & Brakes:
Always make sure your tow vehicle and trailer tires are inflated properly (this includes the spare tires) and the lug nuts are tight on your trailer wheels. Under inflation reduces the load carrying capacity of your tow vehicle and trailer and over inflation causes premature tire wear and affects the handling. Before trailering inspect the trailer bearings and grease them as needed. If you use Bearing Buddies, which are touted to prevent bearing failure on boat trailers, make sure they are filled with grease, but do not overfill them as this can break the seals. It’s also a good practice to let your wheels and bearings cool down before you launch as cold water can cause the bearings to seize. And if your trailer has brakes, make sure they are working properly and that you’re surge brake fluid reservoir is full.
A trailer’s tongue weight is the amount of the trailer’s weight that presses down on the trailer hitch. The goal is for the tow vehicle and trailer to be nearly parallel to the ground. Too much tongue weight is problematic as it causes there being not enough weight on the front wheels of the tow vehicle. This can cause steering issues so you may want to consider a weight-distributing hitch which reduces that scary fishtailing when driving on the open road.
One of the best boat trailering purchases Boatman ever made was extended mirrors that attach to the existing mirrors on our Suburban. These extra wide mirrors provide additional viewing capacity on both sides of the truck giving full view of the sides and rear of the trailer. Once we arrive at our destination we simply unscrew the mirrors but while driving they are very helpful, especially on the interstate or navigating through construction areas or other tight spaces.
Since Boatman doesn’t believe in trailering without a full set of tools we always carry everything required to safely change a tire or to deal with other such mishaps while on the road. This includes a trailer jack (floor jacks work well because you can roll them) and a couple of pieces of wood (2”x4” about a foot long) for stability. We also make sure we have our lug wrench, loaded grease guns, and wheel chocks in addition to emergency flares and roadside triangles easily available. These days, Boatman is raving about the set of magnetic emergency LED reflective flashers he recently purchased and of course, we never ever trailer without a fire extinguisher in our truck!
Given there’s so much to remember it’s wise to create a checklist so that nothing important is forgotten. And if you’re trailering for long distances it’s good to inspect your trailer before you start your trip and then periodically along the way. Trailering is fun but also serious business so be sure to check your owner’s manual for information on scheduled maintenance of your tow vehicle and trailer. This will help ensure that your time will be spent on the water on not the side of the road or in a repair shop.
About the author: Karen has been boating for 25 years and is a Markel boat insurance customer. Her 23’ Chaparral is slipped in the Chain O’Lakes, in northern Illinois, where she and her husband spend as much time as they can during the summer months.