Tracker Boats Safety Series
Chapter 3 – Smart Trailering
Trailering gives boaters more freedom. Keeping a boat on a trailer means the boater decides where and how to store the boat, so that she is ready whenever a boater wants to use her, and fueling can be done along the way without paying premium prices at the marina fuel dock. But most of all, the freedom comes from the access to different boating areas, whether they’re just down the road or anywhere the highway may reach.
Learning how to trailer a boat is easy with a little practice, some smart techniques, and a bit of courtesy.
Tow Vehicle. Most vehicles have a towing capacity that is listed in the owner’s manual, and this is the best way to know. Boaters can search for the towing capacity of their vehicle online, but it’s best to check with the manufacturer. To find good information, boaters will need to know the vehicle’s manufacturer, model, model year, and most likely the engine size.
Towing a boat and trailer with a combined greater weight than a vehicle’s towing capacity will most likely void the warranty and is very dangerous.
Hitch Size and Capacity
Tow hitches are typically either a “fixed tongue hitch” with a flat non-removable drawbar or a “receiver style hitch” with a receptacle (normally 1.25” or 2”) for inserting special ball mounts.
Make sure to use the proper hitch capacity and ball size. The dealer can advise on the right equipment and towing capacity.
Hitches are classified by the Gross Trailer Weight (GTW).
- Class 1 hitch has a 2,000 pound (907 kg) GTW capacity
- Class 2 hitch has a 3,500 pound (1,588 kg) GTW capacity
- Class 3 hitch has an 8,000 pound (3,629 kg) GTW capacity
- Class 4/5 has an 18,000 pound (8,165 kg) GTW capacity
Trailers are designed to be towed flat with the trailer bed parallel to the road surface. Trailer-hitch ball mounts come with various drops. Select the drop that is appropriate for the vehicle’s hitch height. Many truck hitch heights are higher than those on standard pickups or SUVs and will be better served with a bigger drop.
The image above illustrates the “drop” on a trailer hitch ball mount.
If the vehicle has a receiver-style hitch, be sure to check that the hitch pull pin is secure and lock clip (indicated by the yellow arrow) is in place.
It is recommended that you check that the nut on the bottom of the ball is firmly tightened.
If a trailer has a swing-away tongue, swing it back into place.
Insert the locking pin (yellow arrow) into the receiver and secure it with the safety clip (red arrow).
Ball and Coupler Alignment
Sometimes it takes a little assistance to get the coupler lowered onto the ball. Shaking the trailer tongue may help. If not, raise the trailer with the jack and re-align the ball and coupler until it seats properly.
Position the vehicle and trailer so the ball aligns with the coupler on the front of the trailer (yellow arrow). Lower the trailer jack (red arrow) until all the trailer weight is on the ball.
Once the ball and coupler are properly seated, lock the coupler (red arrow) and insert the safety pin (yellow arrow).
Couple the connectors for the lights.
Safety Cables/Chains. Many boat trailers have safety chains in lieu of cables. They provide protection if the trailer coupler comes off the ball.
Attach the safety cables to the receivers on the trailer hitch. There should be two, one on each side.
Raise the jack into the trailering position and make sure it is securely locked. It is recommended that the wheel point back towards the rear of the trailer to avoid catching or snagging down the road.
As a reminder, create a checklist to review before leaving the driveway.
Trailering Checklist. Your checklist should have at least these following items.
- Ball and coupler tight
- Trailer wiring connected and all lights working
- Coupler locked and pinned
- Safety cables or chains connected
- Trailer jack up and locked in place
- Tire pressure
- Bearings greased
- Lug nuts tight
- Transom saver engine brace, but if you have no transom saver, verify lower unit ground clearance
- Front and rear tie-downs secure
- Boat key. Nearly every boater has launched their boat only to realize the key was still at home
- Drain plug. It is truly a sinking feeling when you drop your boat and see the bilge pump trying to keep up with the water coming through the open drain
Your list may include essential items that you need to fulfill your boating mission. Items that you would not like to leave without, such as fishing gear, water toys, life preservers or even medicines.
Before heading out, make sure all gear is stowed properly so it won’t blow out. Also the Bimini top as well as VHF and other electronic antennas, downriggers, and fishing rods should be secured in the low trailering position.
To fuel up, choose a gas station that allows the entire rig to pull through without needing to back up.
Use your rearview and side-view mirrors to check for clearance. The side-view mirrors offer better vision since the rearview mirror may be obstructed by the boat.
Ethanol. Fuel that contains more than 10-percent ethanol can dissolve or damage internal components in some marine engines and can void the manufacturer’s warranty.
Select the fuel grade and octane that is recommended by the manufacturer’s owner’s manual. Never use fuel that contains more than 10-percent ethanol.
Before inserting the nozzle, be sure that you are accessing the fuel filler, not a filler port for water or oil, or a gunwale-mounted rod holder.
Fueling. Before pumping, be sure the fuel nozzle is in contact with the filler tube. This will help eliminate possible static sparks. It is best to fill slowly. Never leave fuel fill unattended when fueling, as it can lead to overfilling and spills.
Fuel Tanks. When filling a portable fuel tank, always remove the tank from the vehicle. Leave at least one inch of space at the top for expansion.
If your boat has a portable tank, place the tank on the ground and make sure that the fuel nozzle is in contact with the filler port. This will help eliminate static sparks.
Make sure the cap is secured and the vent is tight to prevent spillage while traveling.
On the Road
The boat, motor, and trailer can add several thousand pounds to your rig. Accelerating will take more time and plan for more effort when braking. This takes some getting used to.
Steering. Steer smoothly. Don’t make sudden or sharp moves, these can make the trailer whip around which can lead to loss of control. When towing a trailer, a boater needs to take care to make their intentions known to other drivers by using turn signals when changing lanes or making turns at intersections.
Accelerating and slowing the rig will be much different with a boat in tow.
Your rig is much longer. When passing other vehicles give plenty of room. Use your rear-view and side-view mirrors. Use turn signals to allow other drivers to know your intention.
Hot Tires or Bearings. While tires and bearings may get warm from the kinetic energy they create rolling with the weight of the boat, motor, and trailer on them, they should not be hot. If they feel hot to the touch, have them checked at the nearest service center before continuing on your journey.
It’s good practice to stop occasionally and check your tires and bearings. Tires and bearings will normally feel warm to the touch, but they should not be hot.
Practice with the Trailer
Maneuvering in reverse can at first seem a challenge. This is where practice comes to play. The boat ramp is not the place to learn. It is discourteous to other boaters who are waiting to use the ramp. Find an empty parking lot, and place traffic cones to create a practice course and designate an observer. The observer can offer another set of eyes that’s helpful for diagnosing trailer-driving and -backing mistakes. Boaters can teach themselves a thing or two by placing a piece of tape on the bottom of the steering wheel to learn which way the boat will go when the trailer backs up.
The ramp is no place to try backing your trailer boat for the first time.
Set a course where taking turns too sharply has minimal consequences.
You will likely find that you will need to take wider turns to stay clear of curbs, obstacles, and pedestrians.
When learning to back a trailer, place a piece of tape at the bottom of the steering wheel.
Turn the wheel so that the tape moves in the direction you want the trailer to go.
Use gentle movements and pay attention to your rearview and side-view mirrors. The rearview may be blocked partially by the boat.
Roll your windows down and follow the observer’s instructions. If you hear the command to “STOP!” there is probably something wrong.
At the Ramp
To prepare to launch the boat, get in the habit of doing things the same way every time – it’s a good way to keep from leaving out a step and creating a problem. Practice ramp courtesy. Never block the ramp while preparing your boat for launch. Pull to the side. Put the vehicle in park, turn it off, set the parking brake and walk to the trailer.
There is usually a staging lane designated to use while getting ready for your turn to launch.
Disconnect the light wires, the transom tiedown, the bow tiedown (but not the winch strap), and the transom saver bracket, if one is used.
Disconnect the trailer lights.
Release the bow tie-down (yellow arrow), but not the trailer winch strap (red arrow).
Releasing the winch strap could cause the boat to slide off the trailer on a steep ramp. This is embarrassing, creates delays at the ramp, and may cause serious damage.
Release the transom tie-downs and stow them.
Release and stow the transom saver bracket.
Check the drain plug. If it is not in, put it in. Either way it is a good practice to make sure that it is tightly secured.
When launching a boat from a trailer alone, it’s best to prepare a dock-line at least two lengths of the boat. Attach it on a bow cleat and the other end to the trailer winch handle.
This can prevent an embarrassing swim after the boat slips in.
An alternate method when launching alone is to tie a lengthy bowline to an appropriate dock cleat.
If the trailer is equipped with surge brakes with a backup release, the trailer wiring needs to stay engaged so that the trailer can back up. The connector will have a 5-pin plug as shown above. Some trailers have a manual release.
When the ramp is clear and it is your turn, ramp etiquette dictates that when there is more than one launch lane, line up on one side of the ramp to keep the other side free.
Backing Down the Ramp. Try to align the vehicle and trailer in a straight line to the ramp. It is always easiest to back straight. If available, have someone be another set of eyes. Open all of your vehicles windows and turn off the radio. Even if you don’t have a designated guide, someone may shout a warning.
When the trailer wheels are at the edge of the water have your partner get in the boat.
Continue backing until the point where the boat can be backed off the trailer. When the trailer fenders (yellow arrow) are just under water, it is usually a good bet.
Place the vehicle in park and set the parking brakes. Experienced boaters usually have a chock handy to put under a rear tire.
Standard Transmission. With the vehicle brakes engaged and the clutch pedal depressed, turn off the vehicle and shift into first gear and engage the clutch so the vehicle will not roll. Set the parking brake. Place chocks under the back tires. Chocks are even more important to use with standard transmissions.
Inspecting the Trailer Bunks. Only when the boat is launched can we get a good look at the trailer to confirm everything is in good working order. Make sure the bunks are free of damage to the carpet or structure. There should be no holes, tears, or protruding screws or bolts that could damage the hull.
This is the time to perform the “before starting procedure.” Refer to chapter 4 for the steps.
Lower the engine and start. Let it warm up briefly, being careful not to over-rev the engine. Remember other boaters are waiting their turn.
Release the winch strap.
Gently back off the trailer.
Solo trailer boaters should remove the bowline end attached to the trailer winch and guide the boat to the dock or beach. Try to minimize the time the vehicle is at the ramp, since others are waiting to launch.
Move the vehicle and trailer to the designated parking area. Provided the boat is not in the way of other boaters in the launch zone, this is a good time to inspect the trailer bunks.
Retrieving the Boat
After a fun time on the water, it’s time to retrieve the boat. It’s a good idea to back the trailer into the water until the bunks are just submerged, then pulling the vehicle forward until half the bunks are exposed. This water lubricates the process and will make it easier for the boat to slide up the bunks.
When you are ready to reload the boat onto the trailer, back the trailer until the bunks until they are just under the surface of the water.
Then go forward until half of the bunks are out of the water.
Loading. Tilt the motor slowly to avoid contact with the bottom of the ramp, being careful to keep the prop submerged to maintain steerage. Try to position the boat so it will be centered on the trailer, and slowly increase power until the boat slides up the bunks and makes contact with the stop on the trailer winch. Reduce power immediately. It’s all touch, but try to balance the power and speed carefully. Too much power and the boat may jump over the stop on the winch and potentially cause damage or injury.
Approach the trailer slowly, making sure that the boat is aligned with the center of the trailer between the two bunks.
The operator slowly increases power until the boat is against the stop.
Shown is the boat ready to be strapped and tied down.
Some ramps do not allow power loading. Be sure to check for signs at any ramp you use.
If power loading is prohibited, turn off the engine as soon as the boat makes contact with the bunks. Tilt the engine up and use the winch and strap to pull the boat onto the trailer.
Loading with a Manual Winch. When using a manual winch to pull the boat onto the trailer, be sure the ratchet lock is properly engaged. A freewheeling winch handle can cause serious injury. Owners of larger boats may want to consider purchasing a power winch for the boat’s trailer.
Connect the winch strap and bow tie down. Tighten the winch strap.
Be sure the engine is tilted up fully. Failure to do so may cause severe damage by dragging the lower unit on the ramp.
Retrieve the chock(s). Start your vehicle. Lower the windows and turn off the radio. Shift into gear and with the vehicle brakes engaged release the parking brake. Slowly disengage the vehicle brakes and slowly pull up the ramp.
Check your mirrors to see if the boat is centered on the bunks.
Centering. If it is not centered, back down the ramp and reload until it is. Never trailer a boat that is not centered on the trailer. Once it is properly centered, proceed to the staging area to allow for others to use the ramp.
When you reach the staging area, put the vehicle in park and apply the parking brakes. If you are on a slope, use your chock.
At the Staging Area. Stow all gear in latched or locked compartments. Anything that might blow out. Cover and lower the Bimini into the trailering position, as well as any antennas, fishing rods or outriggers. Beginning at the rear of the boat:
- Replace the tie down straps and motor transom saver.
- Remove the drain plug and stow it where it’s easily accessible for next trip.
- Move forward and check the winch to be sure the boat is against the roller or stop and the ratchet lock is engaged.
- Check the bow tie down.
- Reconnect the trailer lights.
- Double check that the coupler is secure to the hitch and a lock pin has not been removed.
- One final check to be sure the trailer lights are working properly.
Before heading off, remove all weeds and debris from the trailer.
Cross Contamination of Lakes. Spreading water weeds and other aquatic wildlife is a serious problem. Boaters are responsible for knowing all the local and state regulations for cleaning their boats before launching in another lake. Failure to do so can result in a ticket and a stiff fine. It’s common sense, no one wants to be responsible for contaminating a clean body of water.
Once back home, boaters should clear out all food items that might spoil or attract critters while the boat is being stored. Also, remove any wet towels or items that might mildew.
Be sure that the lockers are free of food or wet items that can rot or cause mildew.
For the boat and trailer to continue operating safely and properly, it is important to thoroughly clean them after each use.
Freshwater Wash-Down. Rinse and wash both the boat and trailer, especially if you’ve been in salt water. Wash the boat, including the bilges with fresh water, paying special attention to the engine and trailer. Key areas on the trailer are wheels and brakes, springs and fittings as these are especially vulnerable to salt damage.
Flush the engine after each use. Many engines have a flushing port and some require flushing ears that cover the intake ports on the lower unit. Consult the owner’s manual for the proper procedure and maintenance schedule.
Before storing or covering, let the boat air-dry or towel dry it to prevent mold and mildew.
Inside storage is always preferable.
If the boat must be stored outside, be sure to cover it, chock the wheels and double check that the drain plug has been removed.