January 2020, Volume 109
This time of year, for those who don’t actively winter fish, many have already or are thinking about winterizing their boats or at least getting some annual maintenance work done. With good reason, as the importance of regular maintenance is unfortunately often only discovered at the worst of times when mechanical failures arise. For us, we recommend you perform regular preventative maintenance, especially as recommended in our series with Cajun Outboards. However, even when we keep the boat and the outboard in tip top shape, one item often goes overlooked, but is perhaps the most important from a safety standpoint. While failure on the water is unfortunate and can be dangerous, a mechanical failure on your boat trailer is almost always dangerous and can be a danger to others.
As anglers, we know how to take care of our tools that put fish in the boat. Your trailer is another one of those tools that needs constant care. Some of the most basic considerations that should be checked every trip include your lights and signals, safety chain connection and condition, bunk board and structural integrity, and of course your tire pressure and condition. Tire pressure that is too low can cause wall failure and will show with irregular wear patterns on the inner and outer edges of the tread, while over-pressured tires can also cause blowouts and wall failure, overpressure is indicated by irregular tread wear in the center of the treads.
Perhaps monthly, it is also a good idea to check your tire tread and stems for any cracking or dry-rot, and every few months check your tread ware. Another common trailer tire issue that comes with our fine paved roads in our great state are tire “eggs.” To avoid these common tire issues it is best to park you trailer in an area out of the weather and off of the earthen ground, ideally on concrete. If garage storage isn’t an option, you should consider parking the tires on pavers or thick plywood, and getting tire covers to keep the sun off the tires. It's also a good idea to keep a spare tire on your trailer or in your truck and the same guidelines apply to them. These, along with regularly moving the trailer to ensure the tires are rotated will extend the lifespan of your tires and reduce the likelihood of a blowout.
Tires are just the beginning when it comes to trailers though. Immediately connecting the tires to the trailer is the hub and wheel bearing. This is perhaps the sneakiest of potential failure items. Regular rotation of your tires allows for hub inspection, but wheel bearing inspection should occur more regularly to ensure adequate grease. Most bearings have grease ports and can be re-greased, while some require repacking and can be more labor intensive. Most bearing issues will be evidenced by either grease escaping the bearings, squeaking, grinding, or less than free spinning of the tires. It is best to catch these issues early and keep an eye on the grease to ensure your bearing doesn’t have a friction failure. On a trip out to Lake Fork last year one of the bearings on our trailer began failing and the friction caused the bearing to heat up very quickly, nearly welding the bearing to the hub, making the replacement difficult without a proper mechanic shop. Luckily we were able to find a compatible bearing within an hours drive and get it replaced without further damage to the trailer or our fishing trip.
From the axle to the trailer many trailers have leaf springs and are connected with U-bolts. These springs should be regularly inspected and kept clean. Corroded or heavily rusted springs can hide lurking cracks and lead to failures, along with promoting further corrosion. Bolt tension should be checked regularly, particularly with increased travel on bumpy roads. The trailer frame itself should also be cleaned regularly and inspected for signs of weakness or failure. Some manufacturers will actually notch structural members to flush mount light kits or other mounting structures, which can weaken the metal tubing as well as provide a point of coating failure. This provides an opportune location for corrosion to form and speed structural failure. This recently happened on my trailer. The brake light cutout on the rear tube which runs under the boat and provides structural support for the rear bunk board brackets developed a small corroded area from repeated wet/dry cycling in and out of the water. This weakened the tube steel and in conjunction with loading from my transom saver, again thanks to our less than smooth roads, created a full structural failure of the tube steel, causing a spiral fracture from the torque load produced from the transom saver. This wasn’t a cheap fix, as it required full replacement, meaning a new curved tube had to be fabricated and welded in place.
I think the most common “wear” item on the trailer needing attention is the bunk boards. These should be checked each time the boat is offloaded. I often give my bunk boards a good kick or lift on them as I walk from the truck back to the water, or from the boat to the truck to back down the ramp in order to ensure they are structurally sound and securely fastened in place. The carpet should be kept in good condition to protect the hull of the boat. This is an item that should likely be replaced every 2-3 years whether needed or not; its cheap and easy to do. I usually measure mine and get standard treated lumber cut to fit and covered with bunk carpet. When it’s time to change them I will just throw them in the boat and change them at the ramp, while the boat is in the water; it usually takes less than 10 minutes.
Another quick fix item that should be checked each time you load is your straps. The front strap should be checked for fraying and dry rot, and can usually be changed in just a few minutes, depending on your ratcheting system. The rear straps are more susceptible to dry rot given their repeated exposure to the water and usually require replacement of the entire ratchet system; fairly easy but a little expensive. The trailer jack and hitch itself should be greased regularly to ensure ease of use and to extend the lifespan of the hitch and jack; afterall no one likes cranking a frozen jack or having to beat or kick on the hitch, when a good greasing costs just a few dollars and can be done in under five minutes.
Last but not least, my pet peeve on trailers are the lights. I always check my lights before every trip. It’s easy to do and you don’t even have to get out of the car to do it; or you can use your key fob to check the blinkers as you walk up to the vehicle, and press your break to check the lights in your side mirrors. It never fails though, I never catch a light not working before a trip; its always when I get somewhere that I find it has quit working in transit. With today’s LED prices dropping, you can get a full trailer kit, with fully sealed submersible LED lights for under $30, and rewiring a trailer can be done in about an hour.
To enjoy your time on the water, and get there safely, make sure to keep a good check on your trailer. Don’t forget loading the boat and packing the boat to ensure an even weight distribution will also go along way towards making the boat tow better. Prime fishing will be upon us (as if it isn’t already) very soon, so make sure you can spend more time on the water and less time fixing your trailer by following some basic preventative maintenance best practices.
Damaged trailer frame is not overly noticeable in this picture, but significant damage is present upon further inspection.
Corroded trailer tubing with stress cracking from loading and corrosion around the factory light cutouts, which provided weak points in the trailer allowing corrosion and stress to damage the trailer.
After going unnoticed, further significant damage resulted from loading and stress, along with corrsion, resulting in a full break of the trailer frame, very close to the anchor point of the bunk board.