Recreational Boating Safety – Trailering

By Bob Currie, Vessel Examiner
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
Many accidents occur every year involving the trailering of boats. There are many things that can go wrong when you are trailering your boat to the ramp and back home again. Accidents occur that lead to injury and even death in some cases. This column will discuss safe trailering. Hopefully you will learn something new or at least realize there are some things you should do differently from your current methods.

The Station Galveston Flotilla of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary operates out of the USCG Station Galveston base on Galveston Island. They aid the Coast Guard by providing maritime observation patrols in Galveston Bay; by providing recreational boating vessel safety checks; and by working alongside Coast Guard members in maritime accident investigation, small boat training, watch standing, and procurement.

Legal Requirements
Be sure your boat trailer has current registration and license plates. The license plate should be mounted so that it is illuminated by your trailer lights. If your license plate and registration is current but it is not mounted where it can be illuminated by the trailer lights, you can receive a ticket. Test your lights each time you connect to your trailer. Many accidents are caused each year by improperly working boat trailer lights. Be sure to test your brake lights. Keep your electrical connections clean and free of corrosion. After cleaning the connections, apply a little electrical connector grease to the connections to help keep them from corroding.

Before Towing
Before you even think about hooking your boat to your trailer, check all the nuts and bolts, tightening as needed. Galvanized and painted trailers are especially prone to having loose nuts and bolts, including wheel lug nuts. Every year someone loses a trailer wheel going down the highway. The results of such can be disastrous. Trailer boards and guides are often found to have loose nuts and bolts. Tighten them up! Be sure to check your hitch. I once discovered the hitch pin was almost out. I was towing a large boat at the time. If I hadn’t stopped for gas when I did I would have lost the trailer.

Check your wheel bearings. Wheel bearing failure is a frequent cause of trailering accidents. Lubricate if necessary. Shake the trailer and observe for any looseness in the bearing. It may need tightening or replacement. If you can, rotate the wheels and listen for any grinding noise. Any noise in the bearing is an indication of failure.

A friend told me that he was towing his boat to the ramp one day when he caught a glimpse in his side mirror of a vehicle about to pass him. As the vehicle got closer, he could see that it was his boat that had come loose from the hitch. Oh, there was some resulting damage, but he was lucky that the boat didn’t hit another vehicle. The lesson here is to check that the trailer coupler is completely over the ball of the hitch and securely latched. Be sure to test the connection by lifting up on the coupler. There should be little or no play between the ball and the trailer coupler. Galvanized metal ball connectors wear from use and become loose over time. When this happens, you need to adjust the locking mechanism. If the locking mechanism moves easily, the connection is too loose. There should be some resistance when you operate the locking mechanism.

After locking the hitch connection, be sure to attach your safety chains. Safety chains are now required by law in every state. Be sure to cross the chains below the trailer coupler before connecting them to your hitch. That helps prevent the trailer coupler from pitch-poling if the coupler does come off the ball. If the trailer coupler makes contact with the road it can dig in and flip your trailer. This particular type of accident happens every year and has often resulted in serious injury and death besides serious damage to the boat.

Make sure your boat is secured on the trailer. Securing straps are notorious for becoming loose during storage. This is also a good time to install your plug. For years my only boat was a pontoon boat. I had to get used to installing the drain plug again when I got a conventional boat. Thank goodness for my automatic bilge pump. If your bilge pump turns on while you are launching your boat, that is a pretty good sign you forgot to install the plug.

Secure all equipment inside your boat before trailering. I know we have all seen the occasional life jackets, ice chests, and tackle boxes on the side of the road. Empty ice chests are quite easy to float out of the boat while going down the highway.

Pre-Launching Preparations
To save time, prepare your boat for launching away from the ramp. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Check your drain plug one more time. It could work loose during a long transport.
  • Remove any engine supports and tiedown straps.
  • Make ready dock lines, fenders and boat hooks.
  • Attach a bow line so the boat can’t drift away after launching.
  • Visually check the boat ramp for hazards such as debris and sharp objects.
  • If there is a drop off marker, take note of its location.
  • Take the tide height into consideration before launching to make sure you have enough ramp to float your boat. High tides may cause you to put too much of your vehicle into the water. If there is algae growth on the ramp, you may find you can’t stop when launching and you may end up with your vehicle in the water. We had one death in Texas last year when a boat owner drowned when his truck ended up submerged at the ramp.

Launching
Once you have your boat prepared for launch and it is your turn to launch, take the following points into consideration:

  • Use your parking brake if you leave your vehicle while launching or retrieving. On steep ramps you may even need wheel chocks for your vehicle.
  • Make sure there is no one behind you when backing down the ramp. Make one last sweep to make sure a small boat such as a kayak has not taken position for retrieval. Watch out for children playing nearby. One ramp I often use is at a very popular seafood restaurant, and restaurant patrons are notorious for walking between the ramp and someone backing down the ramp.
  • Try to avoid launching by yourself. It is much safer if you have help.
  • If you must launch by yourself, attach a long bowline to your trailer winch post so that the boat does not drift away during the launch.
  • Take care not to back your trailer completely off the ramp. Good ramps have End of Ramp markers. Some ramp drop-offs are quite deep. They weren’t designed that way. Instead, the end of the ramp becomes washed out due to people trying to power their boat onto or off their trailer. If it takes 4,000 rpm to get your boat on or off your trailer, your trailer is not positioned deep enough.
  • Once your boat is floating freely, move it to the dock for final loading of passengers. Free the ramp up for the next person.

Retrieval
Both launching and retrieval involve a lot of courtesy toward other boaters. You don’t want to be a ramp hog. If the ramp is wide enough to launch or retrieve two boats at once, then try to take up only half the ramp when performing either procedure. Know that whatever the tide situation was at launch, it will have changed by the time you are ready to retrieve your boat. The same rule applies to the wind. There is a reason that a computer search for “boat load fails” turns up thousands of videos. Many people do it wrong. Many. I have seen many people hit their trailers at speed, launching up the rollers or boards, slamming into the winch post with their trailering eye. Pull your boat owner’s manual out and read it. The preferred method is to float your boat onto the trailer, using the winch to secure the boat to the trailer. By launching your boat up onto the trailer you stress both the boat and the trailer. Yes, that means you have to submerge most of your trailer. Your vehicle’s rear wheels should be right at the edge of the water.

Don’t load your boat onto its trailer with passengers aboard. The extra weight stresses the hull. Offload them at the dock instead. It’s safer for them as well as the boat. If you retrieve your boat as recommended by your owner’s manual as well as the Safe Boating Council, you won’t run the boat onto the trailer. You will float it on and pull it the final distance with the winch. You are doing it incorrectly if you are running it onto dry boards or rollers with your boat engine.

Remember those washed out holes I mentioned that could be found at most boat ramps? If your boat trailer wheels drop off into such a washout, you can severely damage your trailer if you try to pull it out of the hole with the boat on the trailer. I watched a guy pull his single axle completely off his trailer. I had warned him that he needed to at least take the boat off before he tried to get the tires back on the ramp, but he told me he had enough power to pull the trailer up with the boat on it. Imagine the look on his face when the trailer came out of the water with no wheels attached.

Once you have the boat winched up tightly to the winch post roller, attach the safety chain to the boat trailer eye and move your boat off the ramp for final tiedown. Be sure to drain any water from your boat and livewells to prevent transferring invasive species to another body of water. Some freshwater boat ramps have special washing stations to help rinse off any invasive species that may have attached to your hull. When there is a wash station, it must be used.

Finally, make sure everything in your boat is secure. If your life jackets have become wet during the trip on the water, be sure to rinse them off with fresh water and allow them to air dry before stowing them away. The most likely item to blow out of the boat during transport home is the required throw cushion. Although it is required to be immediately available while underway, you may certainly stow it when the boat is removed from the water.

Summary
This article is designed to remind you of the procedures you should follow when trailering your boat. I have added launching and retrieving because they involve the trailer. Just as I recommend towing insurance for your boat, I also recommend trailering insurance. Many insurance policies include trailering. I recommend pulling your owner’s manual out and rereading the towing, launching, and retrieving sections, even if you have owned your boat for several years. It is in your best interest to do so.

For more information on boating safety, please visit the Official Website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division at www.uscgboating.org. Questions about the US Coast Guard Auxiliary or our free Vessel Safety Check program may be directed to me at [email protected] I am available to perform free Vessel Safety Checks, and I will come to your location to perform them. SAFE BOATING!

[11-18-2019]

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