Keep the trailer on the road and the boat in the water

It is every boat owner's fear. Luckily for Eamon Solway, there were plenty of people to help when his trailer crumpled.
File photo by Kris Rabasca

It is every boat owner's fear. Luckily for Eamon Solway, there were plenty of people to help when his trailer crumpled.

Owning a boat is a learning experience, to paraphrase the manufacturer of the Titanic. There are big lessons and there are small lessons. I try to learn from my mistakes, and those of other boaters.

Last week, The Times published a photo of a very nice 20-foot Jones Brothers center console lying across Old County Road. I am certain that any boat owner who saw that photo thought, “There but for the grace of God — and a rusty U-bolt that continues to hold — go I.”

Boat trailers, like knee joints, do not last for ever. Leaf springs bust, wheel bearings fry, axles and frames simply rust out and fail. The results of a component failure can be minor or catastrophic, depending on how fast you are traveling at the time, and whether the failure occurs on State Road or the Bourne Bridge.

For years, I made do with a trailer that was living on spot welds my friend Tom kindly provided. I know there are many Islanders who use their trailers twice a year — once to put the boat in for the season and once to take it out. Working trailer lights and current registrations are considered options.

In a way, ignoring the trailer that carries the boat is the Vineyard example of penny wise and pound foolish when you consider how much it costs to repair a boat dropped on the pavement and replace an engine.

In an interesting coincidence, two of my friends, Ned Casey and Tom, both missed participating in the fluke derby earlier this month when their trailer wheel bearings went on the same weekend (sun spots). I watched Ned drive up the road as his wheel wobbled along. Luckily, he made it home.

But back to Eamon Solway of West Tisbury and the very nice boat he dumped on Old County Road. Eamon, a builder, was initially hesitant about being identified because he thought the accident was embarrassing.

I assured him that anyone who owns a trailer has come close. My leaf spring went after I hit a pothole while trailering my Tashmoo on Panhandle Road. Eamon shared his story so others might avoid similar misfortune.

“One mistake I did make,” Eamon said, “is I did not have the back of the boat strapped down and I think that would have avoided the whole problem, but I was only going a short distance. Usually, I don’t strap it down if I am only going a couple of miles. That was a good lesson learned. Unfortunately, it was kind of the hard way.”

Eamon thinks a leaf spring simply failed. He did not hit anything. “I was just driving down the road and it exploded,” he said. Insurance covered the boat but not the trailer damage because it was not due to an accident or striking a pothole.

Eamon heard a bang and did his best to decelerate as quickly as possible while controlling his truck and the fish-tailing trailer. He had slowed considerably when the wheel bent and the boat fell off the trailer. There was minimal damage to the boat and his engine was up and so did not strike the pavement.

“It could have been a lot worse,” he said. “I am thankful that nobody else was involved. There was no traffic on the road.”

Once the boat was on the ground, people “came out of the woodwork to help,” Eamon said.

Joe Andrade came with a front loader to pick the boat up. “I didn’t have to make a call, he showed up,” Eamon said. “No questions asked.”

Jay Sonia and Joe Rogers of Brickstone Construction showed up with a trailer and hauled the broken boat trailer away. Jonathan Mayhew was driving by and offered Eamon the use of a spare boat trailer. West Tisbury Police Sergeant Skipper Manter made a bad day as good as it could be. “The police were very nice about it,” Eamon said.

Eamon said his trailer is about 7 years old but he replaced the leaf springs and axle three years ago. He suspects the company that sold him the leaf spring provided the incorrect component or there was a defect in the metal.

I decided to give a boat trailer manufacturer a call and ask for some trailering tips. Rick Norman, sales manager for EZ Loader, spoke to me from his office in Spokane, Washington.

I asked Rick what boaters should do to avoid trailer problems. Rick began at the beginning. “Most people do not know how to pick the right trailer in the first place,” Rick said. “They can do all the maintenance, they can do all the safety checks, but they may not have the right trailer when they are going down the road.”

He said leaving it up to the dealer is no guarantee you will have the correct trailer. “I think the two most common mistakes,” he said, “are picking a trailer that doesn’t have the right length or picking a trailer that doesn’t have the correct capacity.”

For example, a person may pick a trailer based on the stated dry weight of his boat when it rolled off the line. Not included in that weight is the engine, gear, and fuel. Now, an 1,800-pound boat turns into a 3,000-pound boat.

“Having an undersize trailer, which unfortunately is quite common, is an issue,” Rick said. “And picking a trailer that is not long enough is also quite an issue because if it is not long enough the odds are you are not going to get adequate tongue weight on the ball. When you see people fish-tailing down the road, that is because they do not have enough tongue weight most of the time.”

Rick said that owners of trailers with brakes in a saltwater area should absolutely have flush kits that allow them to hook a garden hose up to the brakes and flush the interior components.

Whether your trailer is welded or bolted together, it is important to check for stress cracks and rusted fasteners. Wheel bearings can be checked by jacking up the trailer on one side and grabbing the tire at nine o’clock and three o’clock. If the tire does not wiggle and it spins freely with little noise, then the bearing is in pretty decent shape.

Older model wheel bearings require frequent greasing. Rick said EZ Loader has gone to all “oil bath technology,” similar to that used on trucks. The wheels have a view window to check the oil level.

Lights are a familiar trailer nightmare. Newer trailers feature LED lighting. But lights must be in working order. Another often-overlooked component is the winch strap or wire. Replace it when worn.

The leaf springs provide a connection between the axle and the frame. If one leaf spring is starting to crack the trailer will sag on one side. Cracks typically appear in dead center. One way to avoid leaf spring disasters is to purchase a trailer with a torsion axle suspension. “Torsion is so beefy that it is not really something that fails,” Rick said. “But with leaf springs they do.”

With considerable self-interest, I asked Rick how often someone who lives in a saltwater environment should replace leaf springs. He said there is no magic number. “Really, that boils down to almost 100 percent to the amount of maintenance that someone is willing to provide to it,” he said.

I think I will buy a heavy-duty tie-down strap for my trailer.

Fish news

I hear there are bluefish off East Beach, bonito and bluefish off the Hooter, and lots and lots of very picky striped bass feeding on krill off Squibnocket and Gay Head.