By Troy Buzalsky
When watching television, I never eagerly anticipate the commercials, unless of course, it’s Super Bowl Sunday. In fact, I have literally worn out my remote control when those annoying paid announcements interrupt my broadcast, although recently a commercial caught my ear. Playing in the background while I was doing some menial at-home task I heard words that grabbed me, much like when my rod buckles with a powerful and unexpected strike. The voiced-over message said, “What good is it being able to tow a 17,000-pound trailer if you can’t control it?” My mind hit reverse as I thought back over the years of the many situations where an eager, uneducated, or unlucky boater didn’t fully think out his or her trailering situation causing either immediate grief, expensive hardship, and in some cases injury or death.
Firefighters, paramedics, and the Magic Valley Paramedics Special Operations Rescue Team (SORT) work tirelessly as they make a rescue of two victims hanging by a single trailer safety chain. SORT member Brian Strong explains, “The single safety chain held the dangling truck until rescuers could attach additional chains and make the rescue.” © Magic Valley Paramedics
As a boat owner it almost goes without saying that you tow a trailer to transport your boat to and from its place of recreation, that is, unless you are lucky enough to have moorage. With the added responsibility of towing, you are subject to new and different driving challenges than you normally encounter. Towing a trailer is no small job and should be carried out with the respect which it demands.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that nearly 50,000 accidents occur each year involving vehicles towing trailers, be it a travel trailer, a utility trailer, or a boat being towed. Moreover, an accident involving a tow vehicle and trailer can have much greater consequences than a single vehicle, in part due to the relative size of the vehicle-trailer combo and the unpredictable reaction that may occur.
Safe tow practices start with understanding your tow vehicle and end with the application of safe practices and skillful operation. Taking time to make sure a tow vehicle and trailer are compatible and properly equipped for safety can help prevent injuries and minimize the inconvenience and consequences of both breakdowns and crashes.
Being a thoughtful and skillful captain while towing and launching your boat not only increases your on-the-road safety; it also reduces in-the-cab arguments (picture my wife and I here), and makes you a hero—not a zero—with all your other new-found friends lined up at the boat ramp. This column is going to look at some tips, tricks, and products that will help make you that hero while towing your boat.
Weights and Measures
Your ability to handle and control your tow vehicle and trailer is greatly improved when the cargo is properly loaded and distributed. One of the most critical aspects of safely operating a trailer is understanding the weights involved and where they are placed. The first thing to determine is how much weight is being towed and confirming that it is within the capacities of the vehicle and trailer being used. Just because it came that way from the factory doesn’t mean it is always set up right; furthermore, just because the dealer hooked it up and said, “No problem,” doesn’t mean it is safe.
The first thing to determine is the weight being towed and confirming that it is within the capacities of the vehicle and trailer being used. Manufacturers rate vehicles according to their ability to safely tow using a series of ratings, including Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW), Gross Combination Weight Rating (GCWR), and Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR). Similarly, trailers have a rating system that includes Gross Trailer Weight Rating (GTWR) and Gross Trailer Weight (GTW). This information is generally found on the vehicle and trailer placards (most specific) and owner’s manuals.
The Sherline Trailer Tongue Weight Scale makes easy work of getting an accurate trailer tongue weight, which should be 9% to 15% of the trailer’s overall weight. In this case, the boat and trailer weighed in at 4,350 pounds, so the tongue weight was within the ideal range. © Troy Buzalsky
A vehicle’s GCWR is a specific weight determined by the manufacturer to be the maximum weight of a loaded tow vehicle and its attached loaded trailer, trailer, including the weight of any passengers and cargo. The total weight of the tow vehicle and trailer should never exceed the manufacturer’s listed GCWR. I recently purchased a GMC Sierra 1500 short box crew cab with a 3.0L diesel motor. It has a GCWR of 15,000 pounds. To do the quick math, the curb weight is 5,718 pounds and it has a payload listing of 1,482. Adding the curb weight and payload together you get 7,200 pounds, which is the listed GVWR according to the vehicle placard. This gives me a 7,800-pound tow capacity (15,000 GCWR – 7,200 (GVWR) = 7,800).
When integrating a tow vehicle with a trailer, another way to look at it is to add the GTWR of the trailer with the GVWR of the tow vehicle. If they add up to more than the GCWR of the tow vehicle it’s a bad match. The solution is to pick a lighter trailer/boat combo or a bigger tow vehicle.
Tongue weight is the amount of the trailer’s weight that presses down on the trailer hitch. Too little tongue weight can cause the trailer to sway and fishtail. Too much tongue weight can cause many problems, including not enough weight on the front wheels of the tow vehicle. When this occurs, the tow vehicle will be less responsive to steering. Too much tongue weight can also cause the vehicle to squat too much, causing the tongue angle to deflect downward into a less-than-optimum angle. As a general rule, tongue weight should be from 9% to 15% of Gross Trailer Weight. Instead of guessing, consider a Sherline Trailer Tongue Weight Scale (sherline.com), which was developed to make it easy to obtain tongue weights on non-commercial trailers for safe loading and proper trailer handling.
Each year tens of millions of trailer hitches will be installed on cars, trucks, vans and SUVs in the US. The bottom line is not all hitches are created equal, and it is vital that your hitch matches your towing applications.
There are basically two types of hitches: weight-carrying hitches, and weight-distributing hitches. Weight-carrying hitches are generally, but not always, for smaller, lighter loads such as for boat trailers. Weight-distributing hitches use torsion bars to help balance the load and are typically used on heavier loads. Hitches are rated according to their towing capacity:
Class I hitches are rated for a gross trailer weight (GTW) of up to 2,000 pounds, and a maximum tongue weight of 200 pounds.
Class II hitches are rated for GTWs of up to 3,500 pounds and tongue weights up to 350 pounds.
Class III hitches are rated for GTWs up to 5,000 pounds and tongue weights to 500 pounds. This type of hitch generally has a 2-inch square receiver and is considered the standard type of hitch for general towing.
Class IV hitches are rated for GTWs up to 10,000 pounds and tongue weights to 1,200 pounds.
Class V hitches are rated for extra-heavy loads greater than 10,000 pounds with tongue weights that exceed 1,200 pounds. Typical uses might be for towing a car trailer, horse trailer or unusually large boat or camper.
A couple towing their travel trailer lost control of their vehicle and careened over the guardrail at Malad Gorge, in Idaho. The pickup, while still occupied by the husband, wife and two dogs, hung precariously over the 150-foot-deep canyon, suspended by a single trailer safety chain. The Magic Valley Paramedics Special Operations Rescue Team (SORT) made a successful rescue, and credit the safety chain as a vital link to this successful rescue. © Magic Valley Paramedics
Like the hitch itself, the receiver and ball must also match the application. A 2-inch ball with a 3/4-inch shank is usually acceptable for Class II and III applications up to 5,000 pounds. A 2-inch ball with a 1-inch shank is needed for Class III and IV loads up to 6,000 pounds. A beefier 1-1/4-inch shank is needed for Class IV loads up to 8,000 pounds. To get higher tow ratings a 2-5/16-inch ball with a 1-inch shank can handle loads up to 6,000 pounds while the beefier 1-1/4-inch shank is rated for Class IV loads up to 10,000 pounds. A heat-treated shank is needed to handle Class V loads over 10,000 pounds.
If you look through the rescuers’ added safety chains you can see the single trailer safety chain that initially held the hanging vehicle, saving the lives of the owners and their two dogs. © Magic Valley Paramedics
Once you decide on the type and style of trailer-hitch receiver you have or need you must next determine the best hitch, sometime referred to as stinger. The ball-mount hitch must fit your receiver, come with the correct tow ball, and when installed create a level trailer tongue. A level tongue assures proper ground clearance, tow stability, and aerodynamic efficiency. Plus, you won’t look the fool as you parade around with your pride and joy.
Because of the variability in vehicle hitch height and trailer tongue height, the selected hitch needs to fit the application to maintain a level tongue. On my newly acquired GMC Sierra, the hitch height is 18 inches, whereas my prior vehicle sat taller at 22 inches. Clearly my prior hitch won’t work, and I need to research a new hitch.
My boat and trailer combination weighs in at 3,200 pounds when loaded, so technically a Class II hitch would work, but my vehicle is factory equipped with a Class IV hitch with a 2-inch receiver. My boat’s tongue height is 15 inches, so it looks like a 3-inch drop will be needed. That is, unless my added pickup-bed payload and tongue weight (approximately 300 pounds) drop my hitch height, whereas I might need a 2-inch drop.
As I’m digging through my hitch boneyard I tried several stingers of the past, including my beautiful, billet-cut aluminum, adjustable Anderson hitch. None of my drop hitches were a perfect fit, though I could have probably used the Anderson. However, I realized there was a huge problem; not necessarily the hitch, but the tailgate!
After much secrecy, in 2019 GMC debuted what I will call the “Stairway to Heaven”: the Multi-Pro Tailgate. This unique tailgate folds in half to create a workstation shelf, features a built-in load-stop brace, and folds down further to create a step for easy entry. It was indeed a revolutionary design worthy of its secrecy, albeit with an unintended consequence. If you drop the tailgate into the “Stairway to Heaven” position with a trailer-ball mount hitch installed in the receiver you are sure to expel some expletives as you immediately damage your state-of-the-art tailgate. Enter B & W (bwtrailerhitches.com), maker and problem solver for Multi-Pro Tailgate owners, with the Multi-Pro Tow and Stow Hitch.
With the Multi-Pro Tailgate deployed, the Multi-Pro Tow and Stow is safely tucked away to avoid damage to the tailgate. © Troy Buzalsky
B & W has been around since 1987, initially manufacturing custom truck beds. In their early years they designed and engineered the legendary Turnoverball Gooseneck Hitch which led to the Companion 5th-wheel hitch designed to be easy to install and remove. Their Tow and Stow adjustable bumper-hitch system has been a staple in the industry and set the stage for their newest innovation, the Multi-Pro Tow and Stow hitch.
Like the predecessor Tow and Stow Hitch system, the Multi-Pro unit is designed to tow multiple trailer applications with one hitch, offering variable height configurations with as many as three ball sizes. You can quickly and easily select the 1 7/8-inch ball to tow your mower trailer, quickly rotate to the 2-inch ball and adjust the height to tow your boat, and for those big jobs requiring big trailers, rotate to the 2 5/16-inch ball, adjust your height, and off you go. The difference from the standard Tow and Stow hitch and the Multi-Pro hitch is a specifically engineered and machined cutout that allows the assembly to snug in closer to the tow vehicle, providing the necessary clearance for the tailgate.
Once installed and functioning, the Multi-Pro Tow and Stow user must rotate the ball assembly with the offset swingarm to its hidden and stowed position. This not only hides the ball for aesthetics and keeps the ball from protruding, thus preventing a shin-splitting trip hazard, it also keeps the ball out of the crash zone with the tailgate. All B & W hitches are made in America.
An accident involving a tow vehicle and trailer can have much greater consequences than a single vehicle, in part due to the relative size of the vehicle-trailer combo and the unpredictable reaction that may occur. © Troy Buzalsky
Give Me a Brake
If you can remember back to high-school physics, you probably remember the formula Force = Mass x Acceleration. No vehicle can “stop on a dime.” How long it takes to stop depends on road conditions, the speed you are traveling, your perception/reaction time, and the braking ability of your vehicle. When towing, a good place to start is to double the standard “two-second rule” when following behind another vehicle. Allow double the amount of space between you and the vehicle in front of you. The heavier the load, the more space you should allow.
Some states require trailer brakes on trailers having a Gross Trailer Weight [GTW] of more than 1,500 pounds so it’s important to check your state’s requirements. As you move to heavier trailers, you’ll want to start considering trailer brakes even if they are not required. The most popular types of marine trailer brakes are surge and electric-over-hydraulic systems. Surge brakes work hydraulically using the force of a forward shift in the trailer caused by deceleration to compress a fluid cylinder and apply its brakes. Electric-over-hydraulic brakes offer robust braking capacity and utilize a controller in the tow vehicle that senses inertia. When the operator applies the tow-vehicle brakes, the controller generates an electronic signal in proportion to the inertia change of the tow vehicle. The electric/hydraulic power unit receives this signal and produces hydraulic pressure in proportion to the signal strength. The resulting pressure is distributed throughout the trailer brake system.
Today’s trailers have many choices when it comes to trailer brake applications. Many trailers come equipped with drum brakes. Disc brakes are typically considered an upgrade, and have many advantages over drums including the ability to operate with very little fade at high temperatures of up to 1,500ºF. Another worthwhile upgrade for trailer brakes for marine applications is the use of “saltwater grade” components. Even if the boat never enters brackish or saltwater, the added corrosion resistance greatly improves the life expectancy and service of these important elements.
Objects in the Rearview Mirror
Recently, my little community redesigned its downtown corridor to include street lights, charging stations, bike lanes, and, for a brief period of time, back-in-only parking. Yes, back-in parking. You would have thought they changed the orbital direction of the earth watching today’s drivers put on a daily show of incompetence. Light posts and bike racks were daily casualties, and people accidentally taking two parking spaces were all-too-common occurrences. It was a bona fide cluster and clearly demonstrated most people are incapable of effectively backing their vehicle!
The author mounted the EchoMaster Bluetooth wireless camera to a universal post mount. The head unit is quickly deployed and stowed for easy, uncluttered use. © Troy Buzalsky
Imagine, or better yet, spend a day at a local boat dock and you’ll be equally surprised in just how bad some people operate their tow vehicles, especially in reverse. Perhaps technology can help?
I recently researched the concept of a remote (think wireless Bluetooth) trailer camera for those situations where an extra set of eyes may be helpful. My research pointed me to an expert in the field, Walt Ottenad, owner of ADC Mobile. Walt has over 45 years of experience in automobile electronics, and not only understands the product line, but also the installation dynamics.
Because I have a newer GMC pickup, Walt pointed me to a multi-camera interface that would allow adding a wireless back-up camera and front camera to my existing OEM system. Walt explained the same wireless camera could be used with other factory systems, with most aftermarket radio/infotainment head units with an RCA input, or connected to a stand-alone monitor or video-enabled full-display rear-view mirror. In other words, in almost any vehicle application.
The installation in my system took about four hours to wire the front camera and the wireless transmitter. The wireless transmitter conceals nicely on my back window and provides an uninterrupted signal to the trailer-mounted wireless camera.
The EchoMaster Wireless Trailer Camera that I selected is IP68 water/debris-proof, features a 120° viewing angle and IR night-vision illumination. Although a Bluetooth/wireless camera, it does require a 12V power supply. The quick power solution for my boat application was to either wire in the provided plug-in pigtail to my house battery, splice in a male cigarette-plug adapter, or connect to a portable 12V battery like the TalentCell rechargeable 12V battery pack. The quickest and easiest choice for my application was the 12V plug-in cigarette lighter adapter.
I selected the wireless-camera route because I often launch alone without the aid of a back-up person to serve as a guide and blind-spot safety spotter, and I wanted something I could easily add and remove as needed. Frequently, I launch in the dark, and often the boat ramp is obscured or even invisible from the vehicle cab due to the slope, grade, and direction of the ramp. Moreover, backing down my own driveway is even more challenging, as my driveway is lined with curbs on each side as it snakes downhill left, then right, then a hard 90° left making it impossible to know exactly where the trailer is. It’s literally like backing blindfolded.
The wireless back-up camera requires a simple 12V connection. In this case, the author utilizes a cigarette plug adapter that plugs into the gauge cluster array. © Troy Buzalsky
For seamless use, I made the wireless camera a true plug-and-play device, installing the camera onto a rod-holder extension. When I need my wireless trailer camera I remove it from its stowed location, install in the transom-mounted rod-holder base and plug in the power cord…It’s just that simple, and it takes little space to stow, so it’s always handy to use. And most importantly, I will never be “that guy” at the boat ramp, nor will I be as frustrated when backing my boat down my driveway after a long day on the river.
Safety in Numbers
Finally, the importance of safety chains must be stressed. My brother, Todd, was towing our boat several years back and forgot the hitch pin. During the trip Todd accelerated from a stop and suddenly the boat trailer slammed into his bumper. He quickly pulled over and stopped the pickup only to watch the boat trailer pass us, bouncing on the tongue-mounted spare tire. Our safety chains broke under the shock and did not do what they were intended to do. This serves as a reminder that not only do you need safety chains, but they need to be inspected and properly maintained. Always cross the two chains under the tongue, and don’t allow them to drag on the pavement. Now get out there and enjoy that boat!
Troy Buzalsky is the Boats columnist for Fish Alaska magazine, and when not writing about boats he can likely be found chasing fish in the Pacific Northwest and the 49th state and writing about those adventures. Troy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.