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Top 5 Causes For On-The-Road Boat Trailer Breakdowns

In addition to on-the-water assistance, BoatUS handles thousands of calls every year for on-the-road breakdowns. Here's what we found after analyzing five years of data.

A red boat being towed behind a white SUV on the road

Photo: John Linn

The first time that BoatUS member Tony Lazar knew something was wrong was when he felt his truck straining against its load. Lazar and a friend were towing his friend's 22-foot center-console in Melbourne, Florida, for an afternoon of fishing. The second time was when he glanced in his rear-view mirror and saw smoke coming from the left wheel of the boat's trailer.

Once safely on the side of the road, Lazar quickly realized that they weren't going fishing that day. The smoking axle would take an hour or two just to cool down enough to repair it. Lazar used his BoatUS App to summon help from a tow truck, the driver loaded the trailer and boat onto a flatbed and brought it back to his friend's house. Lazar said the wheel was discolored and took the two men a couple hours to remove. Once it was off, they replaced the bearings on both wheels. "I really don't want to be stuck on the side of a fast highway again," he said.

Top 5 causes for breakdowns chart
Top 5 Causes For TRAILER ASSIST® Dispatches
(Data from 2013–2017)

That feeling is shared by thousands more trailer boaters who have contacted BoatUS TRAILER ASSIST®. Seaworthy analyzed five years of data to find out which problems create the most calls to the 24-hour dispatch center. While more than 21 percent of the calls involve wheel bearing and hub problems, like Lazar's, the most common call (44 percent) is for tire issues. Other problems include axles, brakes, and tow-vehicle trouble. (Yes, TRAILER ASSIST even covers tow vehicles!)

While we know what the stats are, we contacted some of the people who are coming to the aid of boaters daily to find out what causes the on-road breakdowns and what you can do to avoid being stuck on the road.

Tires (44%)

"I see underinflated tires all the time. They won't make it far." Low tire pressure is the number one cause of a tire's early demise. Underinflation makes tires run hotter and can cause the trailer to sway more. Keep a good tire gauge handy and check pressure before every trip.

Checking trailer tire

"Tires that have been sitting a long time are more likely to blow than those that get used a lot." Exposure to the elements is a tire killer. Cracked sidewalls and treads are indicators of exposure damage and a signal that the tires need to be replaced. If you don't use your trailer for a while, cover the tires or remove them. (Doing so also makes your boat harder to steal.)

"Carry a spare!" Even if you can't change it yourself, having a service provider do it is much easier than having to tow your boat on a flatbed — and you can continue to the ramp instead of losing a day on the water.

Wheel Bearings (21%)

"I've seen bearings so hot that they melted to the hub." If your hubs get submerged, you should have bearing protectors installed. Warm hubs going into cold water cause water to be drawn into the bearings. Bearing protectors keep the grease under mild pressure and prevent water intrusion, which will ruin the bearings.

"Grease and bearings only last so long." How often you repack or replace your bearings depends on how much you use your trailer, but you should check them at the beginning of each season and repack at the end so gritty oily grease doesn't sit on the bearings over winter.

Rusty wheel bearing

"Dragging brakes can heat up the hubs and make the bearings fail early." "Stop after the first 10 miles or so and feel the bearings." Bearings that are hot to the touch are on the verge of failure — they need to be replaced or at least repacked. A stuck brake may heat up the hub and bearing, too, so make sure that's not where the problem is or you'll just be at it again soon.

"It's easier to service the bearings in the driveway than on the side of the road." "Carry a spare bearing set and grease." Learn how to replace and repack before you hit the road in case one fails. Make sure you're well off the roadway before you attempt a repair like this.

Axles (11%)

"Rusty axles corrode from the inside where water can't drain." Wash down your trailer completely, especially after a saltwater dunk. Some owners park the boat over a sprinkler and let it run a few minutes to rinse off the trailer.

Rusty trailer frame

"A broken rusty axle can cause an accident because the trailer is out of control. One big pothole and bam!" Inspect your axles at the beginning of the season, and do a quick check every time you use the boat. After you've launched the boat is the best time to look because you can see everything.

"Those U-bolts that hold the axle to the trailer sometimes rust through first." Inspect these several times a year. Again, it's easier to do when the boat is not on the trailer.

Miscellaneous (6%)

"Anything that's made of metal and gets a saltwater dunking can fail." A full inspection includes brakes and brake lines, suspension pieces like springs, the frame, and even the hitch, the failure of which have all resulted in calls for service.

"Slippery ramps and front-wheel drive don't mix." Trying to pull a heavy boat up a slick ramp with a front-wheel drive vehicle is much more difficult because the weight is transferred to the rear tires. Four-wheel or all-wheel drive will nearly always get you up the ramp. Don't forget to set the parking brake when the boat is ready to be floated off. You don't want to be "that guy" on YouTube.

Tow Vehicle (5%)

"Keep your rig's cooling system in top shape." Many calls for service on the tow vehicle are due to overheating. Towing a trailer, especially in hot weather, taxes your vehicle's cooling system and can cause an overheated engine. Check your coolant level and drive belt tension. Inspect hoses frequently for softness and bulging, two signs of impending failure.

Setting up t otow a broken down truck and trailered boat

"Some cars just shouldn't tow boats." Check the owner's manual to see how much total weight your car can tow. Make sure you add in the boat's fuel, water, and gear, as well as the extra weight you may have in the car. Keep it under about 85 percent of the rated capacity. If you're close to the limit, you'll put a real strain on the car, which can lead to a breakdown.

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Charles Fort

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Charles Fort is BoatUS Magazine's West Coast Editor. He often writes local news items for BoatUS Magazine's Waypoints column and contributes to Reports, in-depth tech features in every issue written to help readers avoid accidental damage to their boats. He is a member of the National Association of Marine Surveyors, he's on ABYC tech committees, and has a 100-ton U.S. Coast Guard license. He lives in California.