Trailer Smarts: Road And Ramp

Real-world trailering tips

4th August 2000.
By Randy Scott

The freedom associated with being able to trailer your boat from one location to another opens up virtually unlimited boating opportunities. Unlike dock-bound boaters forced to relegate their boating experience to one particular area, a trailered boat permits you to fish new waters, cruise among new sights, boat-camp in a different environment and waterski calmer waters. You can go to any lake, river or coastal area your heart desires. And then there’s the added convenience of bringing it back home where you can keep it safely stored and tinker on it anytime you want.

Of course, there is more to towing than simply hitching up the trailer and heading down the road. Towing is an art. It involves skill. Yet, it is a challenge that can be mastered easily enough with the proper know-how and a measure of practice. So, if you’re unfamiliar with towing, there’s no reason to feel overwhelmed by it. In fact, if your tow vehicle and trailer are set up properly, you’ll hardly notice any difference between towing and non-towing until you have to back up or maneuver in tight areas.

Before Hitting The Road

Before you take to the road, however, there are some important things you need to consider first. One has to do with weight. Both your tow vehicle and trailer have a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating that represents the total allowable weight its designed to safely carry. On some boat and trailer packages, the boat utilizes most of this weight, leaving little else that can be added. However, because the boat has a lot of room for carrying cargo, it is possible to easily surpass the trailer’s GVWR.

The best way to determine if you are within the proper weight limits is to take your tow vehicle and trailer, fully loaded with passengers and cargo, to a public scale and weigh them separately. If your boat has a large fuel tank you may want to wait and fill it at an on-the-water fuel dock to reduce trailered weight.

Other weights you should be aware of are Gross Axle Weight Rating, the maximum allowable weight on each axle; Trailer Weight Allowance, the maximum weight the vehicle can safely pull; and Gross Combined Weight Rating, the combined weight of a fully loaded tow vehicle and the total weight of what’s in tow. None of them should be taken for granted.

The TWA rating can vary, depending on whether your tow rig has manual or automatic transmission and if it has four-wheel drive. The GCWR, on the other hand, is determined by engine, transmission and rear axle ratio.

It is also prudent to go through a check list before leaving home. Make sure all the trailer lights work, that the trailer jack is raised and locked in place, and that the trailer is properly hitched to the tow vehicle. Running a bolt through the hitch coupler hole will ensure it won’t pop open and come off the hitchball during a bumpy transit. However, as double insurance crisscross the safety chains so they form a cradle to catch the trailer tongue and keep it from digging into the pavement and flipping over should it come loose. And make sure the trailer’s breakaway cable is connected for added safety. This will automatically activate the trailer brakes if the trailer comes loose from the tow vehicle.

Double check that the boat is setting correctly on the trailer and is adequately strapped to keep it that way. Also check tire pressure (including the spare) and make sure all wheel nuts are tight. If you are driving over bumpy roads or for a long distance, it is good to make periodic inspections of the above along the way.

Alter Your Driving Habits

The added length, width and weight of your boat and trailer need to be compensated for by altering your driving habits when towing. This is especially important when making turns. Because trailers have a tighter turning radius than that of the tow vehicle, you’ll need to make wider than normal turns to avoid running over curbs or clipping parked cars and the like.

You’ll also notice some difference in acceleration, the variance depending on the power of your tow vehicle and the amount of load you’re pulling. Therefore, merging and passing will need to be calculated differently than when you’re not towing. Rather than speeding up to “beat” merging traffic or to quickly pass another vehicle to avoid oncoming traffic, safe towing requires you to exercise more patience.

Compensation must also be made for your added length. Because your combined rig is physically twice as long or longer than when not towing, it will take you twice as long to pass another vehicle — regardless of speed — and you’ll need twice the room to fit between vehicles. When passing another vehicle you’ll also need to be careful not to cut them off by pulling back into your lane too soon. Commercial truck drivers will often flash their lights to indicate when you’ve put enough distance between them and you to safely pull back into their lane. This is a good courtesy to imitate. And give plenty of forethought about pulling into narrow or crowded areas because getting out can be drastically more difficult than getting in. Plan it so you can exit by driving forward if possible.

You should also allow greater stopping distances because of the added weight pushing against you when braking. Most states require trailers of substantial size to be equipped with their own set of brakes (which you will want to be sure to maintain), yet your tow vehicle’s stopping ability still won’t be as good as when not towing. So allow for this by leaving more room in which to stop. And drive slower, which by law you’re supposed to do when towing anyhow.

You may experience trailer sway on occasion when towing. If it’s persistent, pull over and check that the hitch is still fastened securely to the tow vehicle and that the hitchball and coupler haven’t loosened. Also make sure the tire lug nuts are tight and that the tires have adequate air. If all those items pass inspection, your problem may be that the trailer’s tongue weight (the amount of trailer weight on the hitchball) is too light. Generally, this should be between 10 and 15 percent of the total trailer weight. Too much weight from cargo placed in the rear of the boat may be the culprit and simply moving some of the load forward may be the solution. Also make sure the boat is situated as far forward on the trailer as possible. In some cases sway is the result of a poorly designed trailer or one that doesn’t properly fit the particular boat you’re hauling. Or you may have exceeded your tow vehicle’s Towing Weight Allowance.

On The Ramp

Good launch ramp etiquette involves doing pre-launch duties in an area where you’re not blocking other boats from being launched or retrieved. This involves loading the boat with gear, checking the battery, taking off the tie-downs, disconnecting the trailer wiring, making sure the drain plug is in, etc. If you have an inboard engine, run the engine compartment blower approximately four minutes to rid it of potentially explosive gas fumes before starting the boat’s engine. Because gas fumes are heavier than oxygen, merely opening the engine hatch will not totally eliminate them.

Once the boat is prepped, it’s time to back it down to the water. If the ramp is wide enough, drive close to the water’s edge before turning the vehicle uphill; this will reduce the distance you have to back up the trailer. With the trailer and tow vehicle in a fairly straight line, place your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel and use your mirrors to direct you back. If you want the trailer to go left, move your hand to the left; to go right, move your hand to the right. If you make a mistake and angle the trailer too much in one direction, it is usually easier to pull forward and straighten it out rather than trying to correct it in reverse.

When the trailer wheels reach the water’s edge, have someone at the boat’s helm lower the outboard or drive to within a few inches of the ground. Then back the trailer into the water far enough to submerge the drive’s water intake, but not so far as to float the boat, and start the engine. After it warms up, disconnect the winch strap from the bow eye and back the trailer in far enough to free the boat. Putting the boat engine in reverse will help free the boat and reduce the distance the trailer needs to be backed into the water. When the boat is free, pull the trailer from the water and park.

To retrieve the boat, back the trailer far enough into the water for the boat driver to pull onto it. (Trailer designs vary, but usually it is best to leave a small portion of the bunks or rollers above water to help guide the boat onto the trailer.) When the boat is snug to the bow stop, connect the winch strap. The boat driver should shut off the boat’s engine and raise the drive as the tow vehicle pulls the boat from the water. Back in the prep area, reconnect the trailer wiring, attach the tie-downs and make sure everything is ready and operable for the tow home … or to wherever your heart leads you next.


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