The Shallow Water Sailor Sailing Manual

5.0 Trailering

The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, and such principle streams of it as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado, or any other river, may offer the most direct and practicable water-communication across the continent for the purposes of commerce.

                                                    Thomas Jefferson to Captain Meriwether Lewis

          If you own a typical SWS member boat, such as a Dovekie, you are already in good shape concerning trailering.  Your boat weighs 600 lbs, add to that 200 lbs of gear and 200 lbs of trailer, you are dealing with a total trailering weight of about 1000 lbs.  That’s nothing compared with the 3000 to 5000 lbs. monsters you will see at the ramp.  With such a light load you are in the class of very easy-to-trailer boats.  But, still, hauling your boat down the highway will be the most hazardous part of the whole sailing operation.  One must give due attention to both the maintenance and proper use of the boat trailer to avoid breakdowns on the highway.  So here are some trailering tips for safe and enjoyable trailering:


Dovekie specific recommendations from the Dovekie Manual are in italics.
  1. Refer to the owner's manual of the tow vehicle, which may have specific instructions regarding towing.
  2. Have your wheel bearings overhauled every second or third year.  This means disassembling the hub, removing the wheel bearings, cleaning or replacing them, filling them with grease, reinstalling them, adding a new seal, re-assembly, and filling the hub with grease. The do-it-yourselfer could do the overhaul himself, see section 7.7 Wheel Bearings.
  3. If you have Bearing Buddies remember to keep them filled and pressurized to keep water from getting to the bearings.  There are newer systems, such as Champion’s spindle-lube system.  In this system the axle has grease fittings on the ends of the axle that deliver grease between the inner bearing and seal.  It seems like a good design as it allows you to renew all the grease in the hub without taking the hub off.  You pump in the grease and the new grease displaces all the old grease in the hub.  Champion does not recommend the use of bearing buddies because the pressure tends to blow out the inner seal.  Their axles come with special covers that do not pressurize the grease.  But once a year you are supposed to replace the grease, removing any water that might have entered the hub.  So on balance, Champion feels this approach works better.  In any case don’t neglect your bearings.
  4. The hitch should be VERY robust!  Except for “step” bumpers on trucks, a bumper hitch should NOT be used.  For Dovekie trailers use of a bolt-on hitch, such as those made by Valley Tow Rite, Reese, etc. are acceptable.  The loads on the hitch will be: vertical = adjustable from 75-100 lbs, depending on how the boat is loaded.  Ball size is 1 7/8. The top of the ball should be about 19” above the ground for the boat to be level.  An inch or two, one way or the other, poses no problem.
  5. The basic recommendation is that tongue weight should be 10 to 15% of load weight. You adjust tongue weight by moving the front trailer winch standard  forward or back or by moving boat contents fore and aft.  Keep your eye out for any trailer sway, if it occurs, increasing tongue weight should correct it.  I generally leave the engine installed, but for long trips I remove it and carry it in my van.  I notice that tongue weight increases dramatically.  For those of you who keep the engine installed, care should be taken to assure that it is secured properly so that it, or the boat, is not damaged by the engine's weight or vibration.  If you must tip the engine up, extra support of the engine's lower unit should be investigated.
  6. Your trailer is attached to the rear end of your car. One of the worst nightmares is if the trailer parts company with your car at highway speeds. Safety chains are attached between the trailer coupling and the tow vehicle, assure they are crossed under the hitch, in case the ball and socket coupling ever lets go.  Inspect the coupling frequently to make sure that vibration or stress hasn’t damaged it in some way.
  7. Always check your lights.  Make sure the running, brake, and signal lights are working.  Checking the break lights, when you're alone, can be challenging.  Checking them in the dark, the night before leaving, allows you to see if the break lights are operating, while you press the break.  Some sailors use a length of wood, wedged against the driver's seat and the brake, so they can run behind the trailer to see if the break lights are working.  Strange behavor of trailer lights occur when ground wires are loose, so remember to check them.  Have extra bulbs handy.
  8. Always tie a safety line from the boat’s towing eye to the trailer.  Do not count on the winch lock alone. This is especially important with roller-bunked trailers that permit the load to slide off easily.
  9. The body of your boat should be secured to the trailer with straps.
  10. Check tire pressures of your trailer tires and spares.  Low tire pressure can cause blow-outs.  Check that the wheel lug nuts are tight.  Unless the lug nuts are good and tight they can vibrate loose during a long haul.  Check that you have the necessary tools for changing a tire and that you have a tire gauge and tire pump in tow vehicle.  Bring replacement wheel bearings of the correct size.   Even if you can not replace them yourself, a service station can do it for you, but might not have the correct parts.
  11. Practice backing up.  There is a trailering rule-of-thumb that can help.  When backing, the boat goes in the same direction as the underside of your steering wheel.  With this in mind, find an empty parking lot and practice backing with your trailer.  Never oversteer when backing, once the trailer gets at too acute an angle, it simply won’t behave.  If the angle is too acute, just pull forward to reduce it.  While backing up, make gradual adjustments; it works better that way.  [Some sailors with strong front tow vehicle bumpers have mounted an extra hitch ball on the front and push versus back their boats into the water.  This is especially good for tow vehicles with rear drive as the drive wheels stay on the mostly dry part of the ramp.]
  12. Your car is not going to accelerate as rapidly when pulling the trailer, nor will it brake as effectively.  Allow for these changes when entering highways, maintaining distance from the vehicle ahead of you, as well as changing lanes.  When there’s no traffic near you, try braking at speed to see your capabilities. Have your brakes checked before leaving on a long trip. Consider taking the car out of overdrive, especially on long upgrades.  On downgrades downshift, letting the engine’s compression ease you downhill rather than using your brakes to maintain a safe speed.
  13. Stop after the first 10-20 miles to check the trailer’s wheel bearings. Simply feel the hubs to see if they are warm or hot. Ideally, they should be the same temperature or just a bit warmer than the fame of the trailer. If warm, stop after another 10-20 miles, and feel them again. If either is noticeably warm, keep an eye on it by checking every 25-50 miles.  If they get warmer or they are hot, drive slowly to the nearest gas station, or better yet, the nearest RV/trailer service center to check the bearings.  You may want to bring tools and an extra hub along if you want to attend to it yourself.

Dovekie specific recommendations from the Dovekie Manual are in italics.
  1. Once you are at the ramp, it is generally best to do most of the rigging setup while you’re still on terra firma, so long as you’re not blocking the way for other boaters to use the ramp.  But go slowly while setting up.  Try not to fall off the boat, it could ruin your day.
  2. Check for overhead power lines or tree limbs.  Don’t raise your mast in the parking lot if there is any chance of hitting anything overhead there, and on the way to the ramp.  I’ve seen broken masts from running into trees and I’ve seen videos of electrocutions by overhead power lines.  Most ramps are clear of such obstructions, but not ALL.
  3. You will almost certainly forget to put the boat’s drain plug in.  But this will only happen once.  It does help to get this done while you’re setting up.  Attach good length docking lines and arrange them for easy pickup.
  4. Some old timers like to unplug their lights at this time.  They feel it saves the bulbs as they hit the cold water.  I never do this, but I have the pressure equalization lights that help assure the bulbs don’t get wet.  I’ve had few problems with them.  I do, at times, have to sand the electrical contacts, but have found a bit of WD-40 sprayed once a year on contacts and trailer electrical harness plugs goes a long way to eliminate corrosion problems.
  5. Check the temperature of your trailer hubs, again, before backing the trailer into the water to make sure they are cool.  Hot hubs, when driven into cold water, will tend to suck water into the bearings shortening their useful life.
  6. Remove the boat hold down strap, the trailer-to-towing eye safety line,and the temporary leeboard pendants.
  7. Install the rudder, shrouds, and mainsheet, if any were removed for towing.
  8. Open the forward and middle hatches. Remove the canopy. Open and furl the dodger.
  9. Before backing down the launching ramp walk down and have a look at the ramp. Is it crowded?  Will you have to launch and be away quickly?  Are there other boats milling about to confuse the issue? Where are the wind and current, and how strong are they?  How will you tie off your boat.  Decide now what you will do to vacate the ramp as expeditiously, and with as little confusion to other boats, as the conditions permit.  If you have a crew, explain your plans and what their duties are.
  10. Question the use of a steep, slippery ramp.  Marine growth, common in tidal areas, can cause a bad fall.  It has also caused the launching of the entire rig, including the vehicle!  I saw a station wagon do this very thing on an algae covered ramp in San Diego.
  11. Make sure a bow line (at least 25’ in length) is secured to the bow (forestay block) and that someone will be tending it before you launch the boat.  Position fenders where needed.
  12. With your backing skill acquired by practice in an empty parking lot back your trailer down the ramp the appropriate distance.  For Dovekies with a trailer bed tilt mechanism, the trailer wheels need only be driven to the water’s edge.   Other boats, that do not use a tilt mechanism, the trailer must be driven into the water so the boat can be floated off the trailer.
  13. Set the parking brake, put the transmission in Park, (or lst, if manual), and shut the engine off.
  14. Release the trailer bed tilt lock.  Do not unhook the winch line.
  15. Do not let go of the winch handle. Release the winch pawl.  Unwind 8-10 turns on the winch.  A small push will get the boat moving aft.  Still without letting go of the winch handle, unwind the winch line.
    BEWARE: If you let go, the winch handle will spin rapidly, out of control.  The boat will race back, also out of control, and you’ll probably break your wrist should you try to stop tie winch handle!
  16. Once afIoat, unhook the winch line.
  17. Have your assistant or bystander, hold the boat, or secure the bow line somehow to the ramp. Drive the car and trailer up the ramp, and park them.  Lock the vehicle (hide a second car key somewhere on vehicle, this has saved me more than once).

Dovekie specific recommendations from the Dovekie Manual are in italics.
  1. When coming back from your sail, and when approaching the ramp or its pier, check again for wind, current conditions, and other boats before deciding how to approach.  If you have crew aboard tell them exactly what your docking plans are and what their duties are.
  2. Depending on congestion, space available, wind direction and strength, etc. at the ramp, sail, row, or scull to the ramp, or to the wharf serving it
  3. Raise and lock the rudder blade, leeboards, and bow centerboard.
  4. Release the click stop on the winch and haul the winch rope out the required distance.
  5. For tilt bed trailers, back to the water’s edge. As when you launched, there is no reason to get the trailer wet.  Move the bow of the boat to center of the center roller. Try to hold the stern out so it’s in line with the trailer.  Attach the winch line hook to the bow eye. Unlock trailer bed tilt mechanism.
  6. Crank a small amount of tension into the winch line. Lock the winch pawl. Now take up on the winch in earnest.  Line tension will pull the bow right up over the roller.
  7. The energy accumulated in the nylon winch line will do most of the work.  Once the bow surmounts the roller, cranking should become pretty easy. Line tension should straighten the boat as it comes onto the trailer, but it may need some help. Crank until the bow is tight against the rubber V-block on the winch stand.
    BEWARE:  The nylon winch line will stretch as it is tensioned.  As it stretches the nylon absorbs energy...a LOT of energy!  If the line should break, or come unhitched when stretched, that energy will be dissipated by the snapping of the loose ends.  Should you, or anyone else be standing in the way, injury could result.  So keep out of the way of the line, make sure it is in good condition and that you attached it properly.

  8. Move up to the parking area.
  9. Secure spars, install hatch covers and canvas for travel. Install hold down strap.
  10. As you prepare your boat for trailering remember that vibration is the mortal enemy of trailers and boats.  Have the necessary tools and walk around your boat making sure everything is tight. Especially re-check wheel lug-nuts for tightness.
  11.  Install hold down strap, the trailer-to-towing eye safety line, and the temporary leeboard pendants.  Tie on a red flag if parts of the rig extend more than two feet behind the stern of the sailboat.
  12. Trailers that have been submerged in salt or brackish water should be rinsed with fresh water to retard rusting of the trailer.
  1. Keep up with trailer rusting with sanding/wire brushing and a rust inhibitor.
  2. Poor trailer light-to-trailer body ground is the source for many light failures. Consider running a ground wire from each light-to-trailer contact to the trailer grounding wire at the front of the trailer.
  3. Light failures can sometimes be fixed with replacing light bulbs, cleaning of contacts between light bulbs and light sockets, or cleaning of the vehicle-to-trailer plugs. If light failures become a nuisance, replace the entire harness and all trailer lights. This is neither very expensive nor very difficult. Consider purchasing the new fully sealed LED lights.
  4. The sun ages tires fairly quickly. This aging can be all but eliminated with the use of tire covers for the parked trailer tires. RV stores sell these vinyl covers. If your trailer tires are too small to use tire covers from the RV store, make your own.  It is worth the expense and effort.
Sounds like a lot but trailering becomes second nature after awhile.  However, do not ever get too overconfident.  Safe trailering!

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