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Tips For Towing A Boat Trailer

Towing a boat can be intimidating, especially if it's your first time. Here's how to have a safe trip to and from the ramp.

On the road trailing a boat

Hitting the highway with a boat trailer that has been properly matched with and secured to the vehicle goes a long way toward ensuring a trouble-free trip. If you've done everything from checking tire pressure to testing trailer lights, and given the rig a "sea trial" run around the neighborhood as well as a leg on the highway at freeway speeds, you're ready to take a longer road trip.

But there you have additional responsibilities as you share the highway with fellow travelers. The extra weight, length, and axle or two combine to make your rig a bigger threat to other drivers. It's important that you recognize your limitations when towing the family boat.

One of the most important considerations is that it will take you longer to accelerate and longer to come to a stop, even if the trailer is equipped with surge or electric brakes. That means giving yourself added space when accelerating to pull out into traffic or pass another vehicle. In addition, you want to add distance between your vehicle and the one ahead of you when underway. When it comes time to slow for a turn or stop for a traffic light, toll booth, or traffic, you need to have given yourself enough room to do so without excessive, last-moment braking.

Tip

Downshift to a lower gear instead of riding your brakes when going downhill to allow the engine to help keep your speed in check.

Turning with a boat trailer in tow is different, too. Your extended two-piece rig will not corner as sharply as does the vehicle alone. Because your trailer's wheels are drawn closer to the inside of a turn than the wheels of your tow vehicle during the maneuver, the trailer's tires will hit or ride up over curbs — or worse — unless you compensate for the extended load by taking the turn wider from the start. When approaching a turn, position your tow vehicle on the outside of the lane to allow the rig to execute a wide turn. Don't cut your steering wheel until your vehicle's rear wheels have passed the inside curb.

Passing also requires factoring-in the weight and length of your vehicle-and-trailer combo. It's going to take you much longer to get up to passing speed, and you'll require more space ahead of the vehicle you are passing to safely return to the cruising lane — and more distance to slow down if needed during the maneuver. My advice: Don't pass unless the car in front of you is going really slow.

Tip

Even the most experienced trailer boaters need assistance, so be sure you have BoatUS Unlimited TRAILER ASSIST added to your Membership before you hit the road!

Wind is another factor that influences a towing rig far more than a vehicle alone. Whether from an air wave created by a passing tractor trailer or a blow from Mother Nature, your rig's extended profile is larger and therefore affected more by any sudden shift in the wind. Large vehicles develop a wave of high-pressure air in front of them and a low-pressure area behind as they speed down the highway. When passed by a big truck on the left, first your trailer and then your tow vehicle may be pushed to the right by the vehicle's "bow wave." Once the truck passes, your rig may be sucked back to the left by the low-pressure zone that follows the vehicle. Unless you're ready for the sudden shifts, with both hands on the wheel, and prepared to compensate by steering a bit left then a bit right during the passing process, it can be a startling event. If the wind is really howling, you should consider pulling over at the next rest stop and tucking your rig among those of veteran truckers who will be doing same until the weather stabilizes.

Tongue Weight Trouble

If the tongue weight is too high, there's too much weight on the front of the trailer, which means there's extra weight on the vehicle's rear tires and too little weight on the front tires. You'll find steering to be a little squirrelly, and you'll want to redistribute some weight in the boat aft.

If you don't have enough weight on the tongue, redistribute the load in the boat forward. This may be as simple as moving heavy coolers toward the bow — though sometimes they will slide back when underway at high speeds. Other times, you may have to move the trailer's winch forward to allow the boat to be winched farther forward to get more weight in front of the trailer axle. The latter must be done at home, not on the side of the highway.

As with boating itself, the secret to successful long-distance driving with a boat in tow is a combination of preventive maintenance, awareness of the rig's limitations, and your experience. The first few times may be intimidating. After that, it's old hat.

When Things Get Fishy

If you've determined the tongue weight and distributed the weight of your boat and load properly, and given the rig a road test, fishtailing should not occur. But sometimes a shift in the load, gust of wind, fast-passing truck, bump in the road, or a slight but sudden jerk of the wheel or tap of the brake can cause the trailer to sway or "fishtail" from side to side. It's a frightening experience, and the only way to remedy the problem is to slow down gradually while turning the wheel as little as possible.

Go to BoatUS.com/TongueWeight to learn how to set and check trailer tongue weight.

It can be tempting to brake in an effort to reduce speed, but that can make your troubles worse, as will trying to compensate for the swaying by turning the wheel. Take your foot off the pedal, stay in your lane, and let the rig slow down. You'll find when you reach a speed around 25 to 35 mph, the swaying will stop if this is a low-tongue-weight issue. Get to the side of the road, shift things in the boat to get more weight toward the front of the trailer.

If you're in the passing lane, let the rig slow down, stay in your lane, get the trailer to stop swaying, and then move to the right lane and then to a safe place along the shoulder of the road.

On-The-Road Checklist

After your first 50 miles or so, and at stops along the route, even if everything appears to be going right, take time to check out your rig just to make sure that all is well. Pay special attention to the following areas:

  • Hitch/ball attachment. Make sure the ball and coupler and tow bar are secure and the safety chains are crossed.
  • Trailer lights. Ensure the stop and turn signals are working properly.
  • Trailer wheel lug nuts. Check for tightness.
  • Trailer wheels' bearing covers. Look for overheating or grease leaks.
  • Trailer tires. Be alert to overheating or signs of unusual wear.
  • Boat transom straps. Test for tightness.
  • Boat interior. Look for signs of load shifting.
  • Boat engine lower unit. Ensure it has remained in the tilted position and any transom savers are secure.

Author

Dan Armitage

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

A full-time travel and outdoors writer based in Ohio, Dan is in his 20th season hosting the popular syndicated radio show Buckeye Sportsman. He gets around on a pontoon boat and an Aquasport center-console, which he uses for all his DIY editorial projects and fishing features. A USCG Captain (Master 50-ton), he’s a popular speaker at boat and sport shows.