What's not to like about trailer sailing? A trailerable sailboat offers a number of benefits and options that should be considered by almost anyone in the market for a sailboat. I say almost anyone because some boats are too big or too unwieldy to trailer on a regular basis.
In this article I'll review the major points that you'll want to consider if you're thinking about the option of trailering your boat. Let's begin with the advantages. Trailering offers you the chance to eliminate expensive docking and winter storage fees, and it can also open up a wide geographical range of sailing venues.
Avid racers have long sought to keep their boats on land to avoid the necessity of painting the bottoms with anti-fouling and to keep the hulls as slick as possible for that extra competitive edge. These sailors know that, though having their boats on a trailer might occasionally mean more time is involved in getting underway, the task of launching via a lift or a ramp is usually pretty straightforward and painless. And for them, having a trailerable boat makes it possible to participate in competitions too far away to get to in a reasonable time via water.
Sailors with limited time available and a number of good sailing locations nearby will want to consider trailering their boats to increase the time they can spend on the water in these locations. It's always a plus—and an opportunity for learning—when you can enjoy some different scenery and sailing conditions that distant lakes, rivers and bays can offer.
Trailering might be a crucial key for someone with a limited budget who might otherwise not be able to sail at all due to the steep dockage and storage fees that often accompany in-the-water storage. All trailer sailors have to do is store the boat and trailer in their backyard, haul it to a launching facility, set up the mast and rig, float the boat, and go sailing. Now that we've established who should consider trailering and why, lets consider some of the limitations imposed by trailering.
The size of the boat matters, in all its dimensions. Too beamy, and it may not be legal to tow on some roads and highways. Too tall, and it may not get under tree branches, wires, overpasses, and other things that limit the ceiling on the roads to the water. Too long, and it may be impossible to make some turns. Too heavy, and it may mean that a more powerful vehicle will have to be bought, rented or borrowed in order to tow it.
Of course the time and labor involved in getting under sail are different when trailering than when docked or moored. How long will it take to step the mast, secure the standing rigging, and do the other chores necessary to transform the boat from its trailering state to its water-borne state? Can the work be done by one person, or are more hands needed? And at the end of the sail, what are the logistics involved in getting the trailer back to the launch ramp while the boat is still afloat?
In some places, it may be possible to tie up or anchor the boat while the trailer and its tow vehicle are parked or brought to the ramp, and if the rigging can be done and undone by one person, then no other hands should be necessary to launch and retrieve. However, some masts are heavier than others, and knowing the limitations regarding stepping and unstopping your mast are a must.
A further limitation might be the launching areas themselves. Are they subject to tidal variations that make ramp launching difficult? Is the ramp steep enough so that a deeper draft vessel like a J/22 can be launched? By surveying the launching facilities in your area you'll know how realistic it is for you to become a trailer sailor. In many cases, ramps may be too short to launch longer sailboats without immersing the trailer. Frequent prop wash from powerboats can unknowingly excavate the bottom at the end of a ramp, creating a big hole that will swallow up a trailer's wheels and possibly damage the trailer axles. Of course you'll want to familiarize yourself with the vertical clearance above launching facilities and ramps. Tree branches and wires need to be well clear of the ramp or hoist areas
Vessels with large fin keels and deep rudders require extra care and labor for safe trailering. These also raise the height of the boat on the trailer to a point where overhead limits might play a role. Boats that have centerboards, daggerboards, and swing keels with kick-up rudders or rudders that can be easily removed will be much easier to trailer.
Some masts can be easily unstepped and stepped, depending upon weight and length. Some will require special equipment to help with the task; others can simply be lifted out by one person and laid in a cradle. In some cases, masts can be equipped with tabernacles, or hinges above deck, to simplify the process, or gin poles.
Once these limitations have been taken into account, the trailer itself needs to be considered. Trailers require regular maintenance unless part of the thrill you seek in sailing is looking in the rearview mirror and seeing the boat and trailer fly off into a gully or sideswipe a Porsche. Maintaining the wheels, bearings, tires, and other electrical and mechanical components in safe, working condition requires a fair amount of do-it-yourself ability or a friendly mechanic, and of course a reliable source for spare parts.
Trailers aren't the only means, for enjoying the benefits of portable sailboats. Some sailboats are small enough and light enough to fit onto a car-top rack or the back of a pickup or van. It may also be possible to find a friend or someone with waterfront property who won't mind storing your boat on their lawn or dock for easy access to the water. If so, this might come at no cost or may require a small rental fee. In these cases, you'll want a boat that can be easily carried or dragged to the water, or one that's fitted out with a simple wheeled dolly to roll it to the water's edge. Boat totes like these are available commercially or they can be homemade.
Trailer sailing is often the right choice for young and old, but usually less so for the folks in between. Both the young and the old are more likely to have limited budgets and lack the need for a cabin and cockpit with room for the kids. And for older sailors, after decades of cruising and partying, and long sweaty hours of boat maintenance, there is strong appeal in the idea of a small, simple boat that can zip or glide along under sail without a lot of muscle needed on the tiller or sheet.