Damaged tire and rim with grease splattered when bearing protectors hit the road.
Ever had your boat trailer break down on the highway? Such an event can get ugly really quick -- even make the local papers. I've been reassessing my own trailer maintenance program after a friend recently had one of his trailer tires fly loose at highway speed.
Trailer maintenance isn't so exciting, so let's get to the exciting part first. His tire and rim came loose on a quiet, straight, divided highway with only occasional passing big trucks. The tire took some crazy bounces, sometimes 12 feet in the air, before catching up with my friend's decelerating truck and boat. After all, the boat trailer was leaning far over and riding on a little steel wheel hub. Instead of crashing through their truck's back window, a fortunate low bounce took the tire under the trailer. The steel hub ran over its own tire and rim, damaging the steel rim in five places. Then the tire ejected sideways -- not in a lethal manner across the highway, but off into dark woods.
As it turned out, his four new 2-inch lug nuts, recently painted to avoid corrosion, had somehow vanished -- most likely with a little help from some joker at an isolated country boat ramp, where the locals seem to have issues with out-of-towners fishing their spots. A cursory check at the boat ramp would have prevented the entire episode: loose lug nuts could have been tightened. Those missing could have been borrowed from the other tire, or from a box of spare trailer parts.
A bigger, top-heavy boat might have flipped while leaning that far over, especially on a curve in the road. But their johnboat was small and light on a straight highway. The two anglers were actually able to lift boat and trailer a foot high and barely slide a handy milk crate under the trailer, allowing room for a car jack to operate properly. The tire was changed, but the buddy bearing had impacted the highway and vanished, splattering grease against the boat. Without a spare cap and no duct tape, they wrapped a Ziploc sandwich bag over the open, still-greasy bearings, and eased into the next town without loosing more grease. An auto parts store was open late that carried bearing protectors and spare lug nuts.
This was a wake-up call that boat owners should carry spare equipment with them. Even a well-maintained trailer can come apart if someone vandalizes it. My friend hadn't lost a lug nut in 30 years of boating, with nothing but good luck pulling boats up and down the highway. However, former luck won't stop a fiasco tomorrow. All you can do is employ regular trailer maintenance, cursory checks of the trailer before getting on the road, both at home and boat ramps, and carry a box of spare trailer parts.
Wheel hub that carries the bearings. Road surface still ground into the hub after tire and rim departed at highway speed. New Buddy Bearing bought further down the road, pounded on with a tire iron, since we lacked a hammer.
On the Road Again
You can bet that pro tournament anglers carry plenty of spare parts for their boat trailers. These guys log more highway time in a season than some fishermen ever see.
Florida pro angler Ron Klys competes in bass tournaments around the Southeast, pulling his rig up and down many an Interstate and country back road.
"I even carry a complete extra wheel hub, with greased bearings inside," says Klys. "Also a quality spare tire, 4-way jack, duct tape, extra bearing protectors, grease gun and extra grease, and a hammer to tap or pry. Also a few road flares and a flashlight, since we pull up and down many a dark road. (It should be noted that flares would have slowed passing traffic during my friend's recent mishap. Instead, cars were zipping by only five feet away without even changing lanes, while he changed the tire).
"Always carry extra fuses and light bulbs for the truck and trailer," continues Klys. "If the truck lights don't work, the trailer's won't either. If you run a tandem trailer axle, bring heavy duty tie straps to tie the second axle up, if all else fails. Give the wheel bearings a quick shot of grease before making a trip. When filling the truck with gas, I walk around and look for obvious dangers, and feel the trailer hubs for signs of heat. If anything is going to happen, those bearings will heat up first."
More Trailer Tips
Keep in mind that many trailer boat rigs weigh tons. If the trailer sags far over, it may take a scissor jack to get underneath.
After a day of fishing, make sure those lug nuts look tight. When you return to the ramp, count your lug nuts and give the tire a push with your foot, watching for a loose tire. Check your trailer ball and hitch for looseness, as well as the safety chains.
As a hot tip, when parking, make sure your tow vehicle and trailer don't cross the line, giving local law enforcement a chance to tow your vehicle. There are horror stories coming out of Texas these days, of tow vehicles and their trailers removed from Galveston Bay ramps and also North Padre Island. Average cost to reclaim each rig is reportedly $2,500. Even in this era of local communities bending rules to the breaking point to raise cash, having a fisherman pay thousands for a towed vehicle is a serious shakedown. Out-of-state vehicles may be especially targeted. Some tournament anglers today would rather pay the occasional fine for a "lost license plate" than have their vehicle targeted for towing -- or vandalized, for that matter.
Keep a spare hub kit tucked away in your truck or boat for use in a pinch. A complete kit will include a hub, bearings, seals, dust cap, lug nuts/bolts and grease.
Preventive Maintenance Starts at Home
There are many facets to boat trailer maintenance, many of them neglected in our efforts to reach the fish before the Saturday crowd arrives. Neglect and a wrong turn of events could be dangerous -- even deadly.
Here's a very basic checklist before getting on the road:
- Cross your trailer's safety chains when connecting to the vehicle.
- Is your trailer tongue jack all the way up, or folded and locked? You don't want to hit a neighborhood safety bump with the wheel down -- trust me on this.
- Is every lug nut tight? They should be torqued to about 85 pound.
- Have a secure tie-down strap for the back of the boat, or a pair of transom straps for a bigger boat?
- Trailer tires carry higher pressure than cars; inflate to 50 PSI and watch for signs of wear.
- Test your trailer brakes (if you have them) by bumping the brakes near your house, not on the intrastate.
- Are those trailer lights working, even the turn signals?
- Make sure your trailer ball fits the trailer, seats snugly without debris inside the hitch, and the fastener pin to the truck hitch is secure.
The short checklist above can save a world of pain on the highway. Proper trailer maintenance is a lengthier subject, of course.
If you constantly fish saltwater, corrosion is a constant enemy of your trailer. Spraying down with a hose is common sense. I prefer a solid dunking, however. Returning from the coast, I've found a handy lake ramp offering sweet water that buries my salty trailer. (I also run the motor for three minutes while doing so).
Trailers are notorious for carrying non-galvanized parts -- such as U-bolts, nuts, the winch gear and leaf springs. They should all be sprayed with a rust inhibitor. If you get the chance, it won't hurt to double-paint some or all of those trailer parts -- they last years longer.
Your trailer runs on tiny ball bearings, and they do require grease. Consider using sturdy marine grease that won't break down when exposed to salt water. Prevent any water intrusion by using bearing protectors that can stay sealed for up to six months, with new grease added by grease gun through a small center nipple. Go easy when adding new grease; too much will pop out the back seal behind the tire, allowing water intrusion -- and spraying grease on the tire at highway speeds. That small outer nipple should be covered by a bearing protector cover.
In Florida where the sun is bad, spray the outer sides of your tires with Armor All. A tire dealer explained to me that he sees far more tires ruined by dry rot on the sidewalls than worn out tread. The sun dries and cracks those outer tire walls. When sitting up for a long period, the ground itself will rot your trailer tires, so consider elevating your trailer by putting them up on blocks. (This might even prevent trailer theft.)
If you have a self-braking trailer, watch your brake fluid level in the reservoir. Use a quality Dot-3 brake fluid. Brake lines on a boat trailer are thin, hypodermic steel that carries the fluid. They can easily rust, causing a leak that will drain the reservoir and cause brake failure. When replacing brake lines for our 25-foot trailer, I painted the new lines with three coats of paint before they went on the trailer, starting with a good primer. Guess what? No more rust for a few years, even in salt water.
There are weight considerations for towing a trailer. What is the weight rating for your trailer? Should you exceed it? For instance, why fill up your boat tanks with fuel and/or the water reservoir and live wells when you still have highway driving ahead? Before leaving, be sure to pull the drain plugs or hit the bilge pump for unwanted water. Just 70 early gallons of fuel is like having several football players riding in your boat, mashing down on your trailer on the highway. That serves no purpose whatsoever. Just be sure you have a quality gas station in mind near your destination. Arriving on the water, with the nearest gas station 50 miles behind you, is no joke.
Joe Richard runs several charter fishing vessels, and also manages Seafavorites.com, a collection of several thousand fishing images taken during his 40 years of exploring the Gulf of Mexico.