Properly maintaining my boat trailer is one of those things that I often think about doing but rarely if ever act on those impulses. Thoughts like, “The surge brakes sure feel weird, I should probably take it to the shop and have them checked” are usually followed by, “but I’m fishing Saturday, so its going to have to wait until next week”. And next week is usually followed by another six months of all fishing and no maintenance, which eventually leads me to the spot I found myself in last week; stuck with the trailer jackknifed in the middle of my narrow street with cars honking at me and the trailer’s brakes completely locked up, leaving me unable to back the boat into the driveway and out of traffic. Anyone who’s spent any time trailering their boat to and from saltwater launch ramps can likely relate to the string of profanities that poured from my mouth as I beat the surge brake release with a hammer until it let go.
This breakdown was enough to prompt me to call West Coast Trailers and make an appointment to drop it off the next day. “I’m sure it’s nothing major” I told the person who answered the phone, ” I think the surge actuator is just sticking.” When asked the last time I had the trailer serviced, I replied, “I haven’t, it’s only four years old.” My reply was met with a brief, but ominous, pause followed by, “Okay, just bring it by tomorrow”.
As it turned out, my actuator wasn’t sticking. It was actually fused into a solid mass of rust due to saltwater exposure.
To add insult to injury, the entire assembly had to be replaced because they ended up needing to cut the bolts off with a grinder just to get at the piston’s blown gaskets.
Upon further inspection, my disk brakes hadn’t fared any better and were rust pitted to the point of not being worth resurfacing. Might as well throw in a new set of calipers too because the close tolerances of the shafts that applies the brake pad to the disk were too close to deal with the rust that grew out of them.
Though still seemingly packed in grease, the wheel bearing were also compromised by rust and needed replacing. By the time we were done, I’m pretty sure that every moving part of the trailer needed service or replacement and what I had thought of as “nothing major” ended up being just the opposite. The bill that went along with all of these repairs was enough to convince me that in the future I’d need to be a little more proactive with preventative maintenance so I sat down with the shop’s owner, Wayne Redman, to get the low down on the proper care and maintenance of boat trailers.
The first thing Wayne told me was that the ocean was a very hostile environment for boat trailers and if you want your trailer to last you’re going to need to be proactive about maintenance. This starts with getting the saltwater off your trailer as soon as you pull it out of the water. Yes, that means rinsing your trailer after launching your boat. I’d heard this before and didn’t think that it was worth the effort but have learned that it does help a lot. My friend Jimmy Decker bought a new trailer for his boat last year and committed to rinsing the trailer immediately after launching his boat and after a year of heavy use, there is not a spot of rust on it. Wayne also recommended unplugging your brake lights before launching and retrieving your boat but if your trailer has brakes you’re going to need to do it once the trailer is already tilted down the launch ramp to avoid the surge brake activating.
Daily maintenance aside, Wayne recommends having your trailer serviced yearly if you launch less than 30 times per year and every 30 trips if you launch more frequently. At around $300-$400 for a basic service (depending on the trailer), that breaks down to around $10 to $13 per trip. While preventative maintenance isn’t cheap, it’s a lot less expensive than what my negligence ended up costing me. If you want to do your own maintenance Wayne recommends pulling your hubs, cleaning your bearings, repacking the whole thing with grease and installing a bearing buddy if you don’t have one. What the bearing buddy does is use a spring to apply a slight (3 PSI) pressure against the grease, which maintains a slight pressure between the inside of the hub and the outside environment preventing saltwater intrusion.
Trailer tires should be check for uneven wear and replaced if needed. One of the biggest mistakes people make is not keeping the tires properly inflated and this can lead to blow outs on the road. Speaking of blowouts on the road, all of the wheel lug nuts should be broken free, removed and replaced after any rust is cleaned off the lug bolt. As someone who has struggled with frozen lug nuts while trying to replace a flat on the side of the freeway in the middle of the night, trust me when I tell you that this is important. When it comes to trailer brakes, the sooner you address any problem you’re having, the easier it will be, so don’t put it off until the whole system fails like I did. While I’m a fairly hands on person when it comes to servicing my motor or dealing with electrical issues on my boat, I’m going to leave the trailer maintenance to a pro from now on because it’s worth the extra few dollars a trip to have the peace of mind that when I hook up my boat I’m going to be able to make it to the ramp and back without incident.