At the top of the launch ramp, the trailer suddenly lurched and fell slightly to one side. In the side-view mirror, I could see one of the wheels cocked at an ugly angle. The axle had broken just inboard of the spindle, leaving the offending wheel hanging on by a thin blade of axle tubing. I was lucky.
It would be understandable to ask how having a broken axle left me feeling lucky. I look at it this way: It could have been much worse if the failure had occurred on a crowded highway at 50 mph. So I was lucky to be able to limp to a parking spot where I could work on the problem.
Boat-trailer breakdowns happen all the time. The folks at BoatU.S., who keep track of thousands of requests for roadside assistance that come through its 24-hour dispatch centers, say 77 percent of calls for help are for trailer-related problems. The rest are for problems with tow vehicles. Forty-three percent of trailer breakdowns are due to flat tires, 22 percent to failed wheel bearings, and 12 percent to failed axles. Those are the big three.
So what can you do to keep from making one of those phone calls? And what if, in spite of your best efforts, something does go wrong with the trailer — what are you going to do then? Check out our guide to help you handle a boat-trailer breakdown.
Roadside Safety Tips
If something breaks, you need to get off the road so you aren’t a hazard to other drivers.
Switch on the emergency flasher, and carefully pull off the road the best you can.
When working roadside, wear a highly reflective jacket or vest. Doing so is inexpensive insurance to help prevent getting hit by a passing vehicle. It’s available online at amazon.com.
Place warning devices such as flares, lights, reflective triangles, etc. behind and in front of the vehicle. If the area is safe for the use of flares, set the first flare or reflector 20 feet behind the vehicle and the rest intermittently about every 30 feet out to a distance of at least 300 feet. At night, lighted markers or flares are most effective. During daylight hours, add highly visible warning devices such as orange cones.
When using flares, realize that they can be dangerous if used improperly. You’re dealing with fire and molten slag that can drip onto skin, clothing or flammable materials. Never ignite a flare near gas fumes or a liquid fuel spill. For safe use of flares:
Strike the flare and hold it away from your body, angled down to allow molten slag to drip off harmlessly without injuring your hands.
When you reach the spot where you want to place the flare, use the included stand or spike, if so equipped. Don’t use flares near dry foliage, and make sure there is nothing but mineral soil or pavement beneath the flare.
Flares eventually burn out and need to be replaced. A technique for automatically igniting fresh flares is to uncap and place a second flare on the nonburning end of the flare that has been ignited, forming an “L” configuration. As the first flare burns to the bottom, it will automatically ignite the next one. Carry plenty of flares to see you through an extended emergency.
When you’re ready to go, clean up the flare debris, drowning with water any fragments that are still burning. Never step on a flare in an attempt to extinguish it, because that could cause a burn injury.