Here’s a hard truth about when a boat trailer breaks down: It’s probably the owner’s fault. It’s not what anyone wants to hear stranded on the side of the highway after the day on the water that just got really expensive. Marine trailers are underappreciated workhorses that too many boaters don’t pay attention to until something goes wrong, so at the very least spend time with these five weak spots.
1. WHEEL BEARINGS
The most common culprits in trailer breakdowns are improperly maintained wheel bearings, said David Knudtzon, owner of Auburn Sports & Marine in Auburn, Wash. Hidden away in the wheel assembly, the bearings are subjected to extreme road heat and cold water during dunkings into the lake or ocean. The wheel bearings, which are lubricated with either grease or oil, should be repacked yearly. There are worry-free bearing systems on the market, including the Vault Hybrid Lubrication system, which guarantees no maintenance or service for up to 10 years.
To check the condition of traditional bearings, Knudtzon recommends jacking up one side of the trailer, when it’s not hitched to the to
w vehicle. The wheel should spin freely and quietly. Look behind the wheel. Any spots where grease or grime has built up could indicate a possible leak.
Today’s marine trailer brakes are better and less expensive than systems sold a decade ago, and disc brakes have generally replaced drum brakes on newer trailers, but that doesn’t mean they’re maintenance-free.
Trailers that sit outside for a long period of time will build up rust on the rotors and calipers, causing the calipers to freeze.
Boat owners often blame the problem on a faulty master cylinder, but rust is the real enemy.
“I live down near the beach and my cars, if I haven’t driven them in a week, the rotors start to get surface rust, and the second I apply the brakes, the surface rust breaks off,” said Jeff Ash, who owns Pacific Boat Trailers in Chino Hills, Calif. “You should inspect the brakes every six months and maybe more frequently if you’re dipping the trailer in water a lot.”
3. LIGHTS & WIRING
Electricity and water don’t mix, but for the latest generation of LED marine trailer lights, that’s not a problem. While today’s LED lights are watertight and come with lifetime warranties, the issues Ash sees on trailers his business services have to do with the wiring. Wire connections aren’t fully sealed, which leads to corrosion. More frequently, rocks or brush will damage wires on the outside of the trailer.
“Another thing we see is a lot of damage from rats,” Ash said. “If you park your trailer, whether it’s inside or outside, rats like to eat wires, just like on cars.”
A blown trailer tire is not only expensive but can damage the trailer. Most tire blowouts are the result of neglect and not a defect, so owners should conduct regular inspections that look for unusual wear or cracking. If the tires need to be replaced, use only tires manufactured for trailers.
Before any road trip, it’s important to check the tire pressure, making sure they’re all inflated to the maximum PSI, as recommended by the manufacturer.
“If the tire is anything lower than the max, it’s losing its weight capability, and technically it’s underinflated, which is not holding the weight it should be,” said Tony Ramirez, who handles sales and customer service for Extreme Custom Trailers in Rialto, Calif. “Going down a road like that, you start breaking down the sidewalls and eventually the tire is going to fail.”
Most trailers now use torsion-axle suspension, which makes it difficult to spot underinflated tires, Ramirez said.
“(With) leaf-spring trailers when you have a flat tire, the rim goes down to the ground, so you can tell it’s flat,” he said. “With torsion, the other axle basically takes up a lot of the weight, so the rim doesn’t go down to the ground and look like it’s flat.”
5. RUST & GENERAL NEGLECT
Rust and general neglect are mortal enemies of trailers. Doing nothing to stave off rust or maintain a trailer will dramatically shorten its service life. A well-maintained marine trailer can last 10 years.
“I’ve seen trailers come in here that are 2 years old and we can just tell they’ve been neglected,” Ramirez said. “They’re going to be ready for a new trailer in two or three years.”
If the trailer touches salt water even once, it should be manufactured from galvanized steel or aluminum. The trailer must be thoroughly flushed with fresh water, but some rust is inevitable because of the corrosive salt.
On painted trailers, Auburn Sports & Marine’s Knudtzon said his technicians look for bubbling paint, which is a sure sign of rust. Paint chips and bubbling paint should always be repaired.
Knudtzon recommended getting the boat and trailer serviced yearly at the same time and seeking out mechanics who specialize in marine trailers.
“We see a lot of problems with boat trailers that are done at automotive facilities,” Knudtzon said. “What the automotive people don’t understand is you don’t drive your car into the water.”