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All Hitched Up and Lots of Places to Go

The requirements for licensing and registration of trailers vary from state to state.

Trailer sailing requires more than a trailer and a boat. It also requires a vehicle capable of towing the loaded trailer, state registration and licensing of the trailer (in most states), a basic understanding of how to properly maintain and operate the trailer and how to launch and retrieve the boat.

It's not all straightforward and obvious.

When I bought Kirsten, a Mystic 20 catboat, it came with a Triad trailer that had been used for several years as nothing but a winter storage stand. The seller signed over the title and registration to the trailer at the same time as boat ownership was transferred. I happily took the paperwork down to the State of New York's Department of Motor Vehicles, and promptly got my first shocks as a boat owner. The first shock was the amount of state sales tax due. The second was that the trailer had to be weighed before it could be registered and licensed, because the former owner had not kept them current.

How the heck does a trailer get weighed? And if it isn't properly licensed, how does the trailer get to wherever it gets weighed? The answer is that the trailer is loaded onto a flatbed truck and taken to a highway weighing stationthose places where signs instruct all trucks to stop, but which almost always seem to be closed. Some privately owned facilities, such as junkyards, may be equipped to do the weighing.

I decided to skip the weighing and licensing and just had my marina haul the trailer to their yard where I could use it for winter storage. My minivan wouldn't be able to tow it anyway, and the marina provided access to all the water I wanted.

But if trailer sailing is the objective, avoid nasty surprises and take the following steps before buying a trailer:

  • Check state laws and regulations on trailers
  • Check your vehicle's manual to find out how much weight it can tow
  • Hire a mechanic to check the roadworthiness of the trailer

All trailers don't fit all boats. If the trailer that comes with the boat is not roadworthy and will be expensive to repair, check with the boat's manufacturer for availability of new or used trailers. If the boat's manufacturer is no longer in business, call the manufacturer of the trailer. If that phone has a disconnected message as well, the next recourse is the boat owners' association or boating related message boards. If all of this does not produce anything within a reasonable price and distance, the only alternative will be to compare the price of repair against the price of finding a trailer that can be customized to fit the boat.

As a useful check on whether a particular trailer meets safety and manufacturing standards or not, visit the web site of the National Marine Manufacturers Association ( The association has a certification program for boat trailer manufacturers, and lists the certified manufacturers.

Check the data plate on the left side of the trailer for its load capacity. It should be at least 15 percent greater than the fully loaded weight of the boat. Sails, fuel, water, outboard engine, anchors and other items can significantly increase a boat's weight. A large safety margin helps keep the rear view mirror free of disturbing sights.

Another percentage to bear in mind is the weight of the trailer tongue weight on the trailer hitch. When parallel to the ground, it should be about 10 percent of the fully loaded trailer's weight for proper balance. Too much or too little weight can cause difficulty driving or severe damage. A bathroom scale can be used to measure the load.

A Pearson 28 can be an ideal boat if you're a trailer sailor.

Constant monitoring and maintenance are critical for the tires and bearings. These are danger spots. Trailer tires tend to be smaller than vehicle tires, and require higher pressure. A flat tire on the trailer while cruising down the highway is going to be much more traumatic than a flat on your passenger car. According to BoatUS, 44 percent of trailering accidents are a result of flat tires. Make sure the tires are properly inflated and have good tread. The hub bearings should have protectors, available at auto parts and marine supply stores, that help keep the bearings fully packed with grease so that no water can enter. A spring-loaded piston or small window makes it possible to check the lubricant level.

Once squared away with the trailer, if the combined weight of the boat and the trailer are less than the recommended maximum load for your vehicle, you're in business. If it exceeds the maximum, consider whether to trade up, rent a truck when needed, or borrow a friend's vehicle. Four-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive is preferable; front-wheel drive vehicles can meet some serious traction challenges.

Now comes the fun part.

There are some techniques that will help you back a trailer down a ramp or into a tight spot.

Back up to the trailer hitch. Cross the safety chains below the hitch eye, and hook the chain ends from the bottom up, not the top down, to prevent them from bouncing loose. Fasten the electrical connections for the trailer's brake lights and turn signals. Now find a large, deserted place to practice the art of backing up with a trailer attached.

The trick is not to think too much about it. At least for me. My brain seizes up when I try to reason out what should happen when backing up. Turn the wheels to the right, and the trailer will go in the opposite direction? But if the trailer image is reversed by the mirror, or if I'm looking over my shoulder, which is the right and which is the left?

There is just one thing to know about backing up with a trailer. Grip the steering wheel at the bottom, or six o'clock position. Move your hand to the right, and the back of the trailer will go to the right, and vice versa. Just keep that hand at the bottom of the wheel!

It would be wise to practice turning, too, to avoid swinging into oncoming traffic or running over curbs, signs and fire hydrants.

After getting these lessons down, check the launch ramp for overhead obstructions, damage, slippery, slimy algae or, in the winter, for ice. The latter might seem obvious, but a pair of hapless fishermen recently made the news by forgetting, and wound up climbing onto the top of their submerged car until help arrived. Wet gravel launch ramps can present similarly risky conditions for tow vehicles that weigh less than the loaded trailer and lack four-wheel drive.

If the trailer does not have bearing protectors, and the hubs are warm from travel, let them cool off first. Immersion while warm will cause contraction and suck water inside. Disconnect the wiring and back down the ramp, if possible, with someone guiding you to make sure you stop before floating off.

Where to stop on the ramp depends upon the boat's keel. The trailer may not even need to enter the water at all for a shoal draft boat, but may have to be completely submerged for a full keel boat. 

Turn off the engine, set the emergency parking brake and put wooden chocks under the trailer tires. If the boat has an outboard, centerboard or transom-mounted rudder, raise or remove them if necessary to prevent damage. Now, using bow and stern lines, bring the boat up to the trailer, attach the winch cable to the bow eye, and crank away. Keep clear of the winch cable, and don't rely on it to hold the boat onto the trailer. Use tie downs at the bow, gunwale and transom. Make sure everything on the boat is secure so it won't break or fly off while on the road. If the mast is stepped and there are low hanging branches or wires over the ramp, lower the mast. Drive off the ramp, stop to reconnect the wiring and make sure everything is holding, then head off to begin your trailer sailing adventures.

Launching your boat involves the same steps as hauling it, but there is one very important difference: be sure to screw in the drain plug!

 Trailering Tips
  • When backing up, grip the steering wheel at the bottom, the six o'clock position, and move your hand to the right to steer the end of the trailer to the right, and vice versa. If you overshoot your mark, drive forward to straighten out.
  • If the wheel hubs don't have bearing protectors, install them to avoid damage from immersion.
  • Carry wheel chocks to prevent the trailer from slipping down the ramp.
  • Use biodegradable dish soap to lubricate rollers or hull supports (carpeted planks also called bunks or bolsters) before launch or retrieval.
  • Hose off the trailer with fresh water after launching or retrieving.
  • During long periods of inactivity, jack up the trailer to raise the tires off the ground and cover the tires with canvas or plastic for longer life.
  • If the trailer has brakes, drive and brake several times to dry them out before entering the road.
  • Watch for overhead obstructions.
  • Regularly check tires and bearings, brake lights and turn signals and winch cable.
  • Avoid trailer theft: use heavy chain and padlock the trailer to the bumper or a tree.
  • Don't forget to screw in the drain plug before launching


Bruce Caldwell is offline  

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