A runabout, cabin cruiser, or sailboat that can fit on a trailer opens up a range of opportunities for boaters to sail waterways that are not too distant from a homeport. Pulling a trailer with a boat, however, spawns a raft of new concerns, including towing safety on the road, tow vehicle and trailer maintenance, and safety requirements, not to mention launching and retrieving the boat at a launch ramp.
Following some simple safety, operation, and maintenance guidelines for the tow vehicle, the trailer and boat will ensure that a trip to the shore or a different body of water is safe and positive.
Trailer towing requires focused driving skills. The basic tips offered below will help get your boat and tow vehicle to a destination safely, without damaging the towing vehicle, the boat, or the trailer. The vehicle and trailer owner manuals for the specific models are the best sources for definitive instructions operation, maintenance, and safety guidelines.
If new to trailering and planning to tow a boat, the very first thing to check is the vehicle’s towing capacity, usually indicated in the owner's manual. Small or mid-sized sedans can usually handle aluminum or fiberglass boats in the 10 to 17 foot range with no problem, but boats above 20 feet require more robust equipment for safe towing. Most standard pick-up trucks and SUVs can comfortably trail boats in the 25 to 30 foot range, provided they are outfitted with the proper tow packages
The basic equipment for attaching a trailer to a tow vehicle are the ball hitch and coupler. The coupler connects the tow vehicle to the trailer fitting over and locking to the ball hitch. Towing gear also includes safety chains that connect the trailer to the ball hitch assembly to keep the trailer attached to the vehicle should the ball hitch and coupler disengage.
An integral part of the trailer is the bow winch, fitted with a nylon strap that secures the bow of the boat to the trailer and used to retrieve the boat from the water. On the stern, ratchet-type straps running from the trailer to the boat’s transom eyes secure the back of the boat. The bow and stern straps are critical equipment that keep the boat squarely on the trailer.
Because boat trailers go into the water, they are equipped with special wheel bearings that require constant care and lubrication. In addition, trailer brake and running lights also get a dunking and need attention after every use. Before departing on a trip of any length, make sure that the trailer’s tires, brakes, and light system are in good working order and that wheel bearings are well-lubricated.
Boat trailering laws vary somewhat from state to state, but are similar enough so that boaters can cross state lines with a trailed boat generally without too much concern. However, speed limits for vehicles with trailers do vary, as does the maximum overall length. The state laws covering trailer lighting, weight, height, width, registration, and licensing requirements, as well as equipment for tow vehicle attachments and vessel size limitations, are mostly standardized. If planning a trip to more than one state, check for any special specific requirements for states along the travel route.
Federal law requires that a trailer have a decal indicating its Gross Trailer Weight Rating (GTW), the total weight a trailer can carry, including the boat, engine, fuel (six pounds/gallon), water (eight pounds/gallon), and gear. As a safety margin, the total should not exceed 85% of the trailer GTW. You should check the trailer GTW and compare that number with the tow vehicle’s towing capacity. If the capacities are close, take steps to lighten the boat’s load, such as removing gear or planning to fuel at the destination.
The three weightiest issues to consider when trailering are:
While preparing a boat for towing, check the following items:
Trailer weight, balance, and length, and the towing capability of the vehicle are critical issues to keep in mind under normal driving conditions and even more so when passing, turning, and on upgrades or downgrades. While on the road, keep these points in mind:
Getting to a launch ramp with a trailered boat safely can be a challenge, but using the proper equipment and knowing how to drive a boat trailer/vehicle rig can make the trip smooth and trouble-free.