Trailer & Boat Maintenence 101

I almost daily shake my head at trailers customers deliver the vessels to me with.  In many cases, I don't know how they even made it to my workshop without losing their entire rig, yet most of the time the operator was completely unaware of the risk they took and liability they assumed should they lost control of their boat and trailer...and the potential loss of their investment all due to simply not knowing these tips. 

All material on this website, and these sections, is ©Runner Outboards LLC and is intellectual property.  You may freely distribute this information as long as it is NOT edited, and credit is given to the author.

Disclaimer: The information provided should never replace common sense or the recommendations of the OEM.  I do not assume responsibility for the use or misuse of this information.  The information provided is based on my experience working as a full time mechanic, on hundreds of motors over time, reading a lot of manuals, education, and consulting other experienced mechanics along with a number of retired service reps I am friends with.
If I can offer any advice from experience, it would be NOT to try and fix your own motor if you don't have a good understanding of what you're doing.  You need to have the right special tools, reference materials, and most importantly, UNDERSTANDING of what is wrong and how to properly fix this issue.  Most people do more harm then good if just messing around blindly.  The reason why I can do these repairs is I've put in thousands of hours reading, fixing, and practicing.  I learn something new everyday.  I have also gone out and acquired the necessary, CORRECT tools and reference manuals to work on the motors.  These are very important to promote correct operation of the motor.  The idea is to have a reliable motor, not just one that 'kinda runs.'

Index - Click below to Jump to That Section

Internal Combustion Essentials
The Basics, What You Need To Know About Motors

Cooling System
Gearcase Components
Ignition System
Fuel System
Mechanical Components
Trailer 101

Protecting Your Transom
Securing The Boat To The Trailer
Tire Maintenence
Trailer Tongue
Wheel Chocks
Saving Your Trailer Lights 4/6/18
Safe Transportation of Accessories
Steering System Problems 4/7/18

Protecting Your Transom

The transom is one of the parts of the boat which handles a great deal of stress and force.  Not only does it support the weight of the motor, but it also withstands the application of thrust from the motor.  Generally transoms are reinforced with heavier duty material and some sort of brace.  So you will see the normal hull backed with heavier metal or 1.5" wood. 

Now when the motor is too heavy, or rather, the transom is not supported properly during transport of the boat, extra stress is put on the structure(s) and can lead to damage.  The first picture shows a transom brace that has been partially broken.  You can see about an inch or so tear in the metal brace near the top, this is where the transom was flexing away due to the weight of the motor bouncing as the trailer went down the road.  The damage occured as a result of a motor being transported a long distance without being supported.  The 130lbs or so of weight caused flex on the transom and this stress eventually caused the aluminum to break.  Metal fatigues when flexed repeatedly and eventually tears/breaks.  Aluminum isn't exactly the strongest metal when in a thin guage.

The 2nd picture shows a backer board of a transom that did not have a metal plate placed on between the stern clamps and wood.  Keep in mind that wood is a sponge, so during the normal condensation cycle each day, or even if it rains or you happen to have a spell of dry weather, the clamps can loosen up.  Well if you keep tightening these bunny ears down, you just keep compressing the board and in fact weaken it in these areas.  There should be an aluminum plate (or stainless steel) so that the compressive forces of the stern clamps are distributed over a wider area.

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A simple way to help prevent these issues is by installing a transom brace or "transom saver" on your trailers aft frame.  What this does is accomplish two things.  It raises the motor off the ground so that you have more clearance between the skeg and the ground, and secondly it pretty much stops the flex of the transom as you drive down the road.  It should be noted that if you have powertrim, using your trim unit as a support DOES NOT stop stress on the transom and you may very well just accomplish ruining your expensive trim unit by transporting the motor in a tilted position, supported only by the hydraulic unit.  Transom supports are available at your local Wally-world or sporting good store, and cost about $35.00.  An inexpensive, no-brainer  investment that will last for years, compared to the cost of fixing your motor and transom of your boat.

no saver saver2

Securing The Boat To The Transom

One of the most common things I see when doing motor installations are vessels which are loosely secured to the trailers that they sit on.  The obvious issue here is you don't want to lose your boat off the trailer during transport.  Yet people think that the bow winch is enough to keep the boat where it sits, or that the bunks alone (regardless of if they are simply wood bunks covered in fabric or the roller type) are enough to keep the boat in place.

These are big mistakes.  People rarely consider what would happen if they had to make a sudden braking, acceleration, or aggressive swerve due to another motorist.  It doesn't take much to throw a boat off a trailer when it's secured in a questionable manner, and even when you take extra measures to protect your boat, that doesn't guarantee protection against a rollover. 

One thing is for sure, ignorance is not bliss, and a loose boat puts you, your passengers, and other motorists at extreme risk for injury or even loss of life if you don't secure your boat properly.  You also assume quite a bit more liability and risk for lawsuit should you be found at fault for not taking the time to be informed.

At a minimum, your boat should have a good quality bow winch.  The one pictured below has expired.  The winch should have a strap, not hardware store line, and should be free of significant rust.  Check the function of the winch locking mechanism.  It should have a strong 'click spring' to insure the boat doesn't become loose.  A marginal winch could get loose as you're driving down the road and hit a bump, jarring the locking mechanism out of place and now all that keeps the boat in place is gravity.  A sudden acceleration and the boat falls off the back of the trailer.

The 2nd picture shows a bow safety chain as a backup measure.  This provides a 2nd layer of protection should the bow winch suddenly let loose.  Now imagine you are launching or trailering your boat on a ramp and the winch lets go.  Your boat slides off the back of the trailer and lands on your motor skeg with the full weight of the boat along with momentum of the boat sliding backwards.  Or say you or a friend is standing behind the boat.  That person is crushed and possibly dies.  Does it make sense to have a safety chain at your bow?

  old winch  bow chain  

Additional straps should be used to further secure the vessel to the trailer.  A mid hull strap, such as a simple ratchet strap, helps keep the boat 'seated' on the trailer so it's not bouncing all over the place.  It also discourages a roll-off situation if you swerve your car suddenly to avoid, say, another car, a deer, a pedestrian.  Transom straps also discourage the boat from sliding backward (2nd picture below).

Keep in mind that ratcheting straps should be used, and depending on the size and weight of your vessel, pick up straps that can handle a load.  Generally the wider the strap, the more stress it can handle.  Don't sacrifice your safety or the security of your rig over skimping on a $10 strap.  Paying a little extra is far worth the investment to say the disastrous alternative.  If your ratchet strap is getting tired/rusty/fatigued, go out and buy replacements.  You can always hit them with blaster or WD-40 to help keep them loose and easy to operate.  When they get dry or corroded they are miserable to deal with.

Tension straps (the type that have a 'claw' rather than a ratcheting mechanism, and rely on you simply 'pulling hard' on it) should be avoided.  These types of straps simply don't give you the leverage to really tie things down.

hull strap  transom strap

Tire Maintenence

The common sense approach is to monitor your tires regularly.  The same things you do for your car tires applies for trailer tires.  What people tend to forget is that trailer tires simply don't last as long as automobile counterparts.  The reason behind this is because they generally are smaller in diameter.  So they are turning much higher RPMs for any given speed that a larger tire rotates.  This accelerates wear & tear.

In many instances trailer tires sit parked in the same spot for months or years and are used rarely.  Now they may not have a lot of road miles on them, but letting rubber sit in the same spot for extended periods leads to dry rot, and a permanent form.  In the off-season, you should jack your trailer up off the ground and support the weight of the boat and trailer using the trailer frame, say, resting on cement blocks.  This saves your springs and tires from having a  constant load applied to them in one specific spot, and will greatly extend the life of your rig.  This may take you a half hour, but is the correct way to put things away.

Check your tires regularly for the following things:  tire pressure (check the rating on the tire itself), tread, shape (round not oval from sitting), and dry rot.  The picture below shows an expired tire with dry rot.  If you've ever had a tire blow out on you during a trip or suddenly deflate, you know risking a fun trip over replacing a potentially questionable tire makes no sense.  If you haven't experienced this yet, don't push your luck.  Use the analogy many people use when considering whether to save or throw out an old vegetable:  "When it doubt, throw it out."

While not directly related to tires, maintaining your axle and bearings is a must as well.  Spend $30.00 and buy a pair of bearing buddies (pictured).  What these do is attach in place of the normal axle hub caps.  They are spring loaded and have a grease fitting for your grease gun.  So you fill them, and the springs force the grease into the bearings as the grease slowly burns off during normal use.  They are much less messy than hand-packing your hubs too.


Trailer Tongues

Many times, I work on rigs that have been sitting for a long time in someone's back yard.  The boat is usually not the issue, it's generally the motor that is being replaced but the trailer may still have a lot of the original components.  The tongue of the trailer HAS to be in very good shape.  If it is at all 'marginal' or in question, it should be replaced.  The pictures below show the difference between an old, expired tongue and a new one.  You can see the corrosion throughout the older tongue, with badly corroded hitch chains and open hooks.  Color doesn't mean much, it's how pervasive the and how long it's been exposed to elements.

What you don't see in the picture is the original tongue lock pin.  This was a rusted old clevis pin that if bent slightly would have snapped in half.  Keep in mind for safety, the tongue has a locking mechanism with a pin that should prevent the lock from ever opening, allowing a trailer to jump off of the towing hitch.  Now if this were to happen, the two chains leading from the trailer and attaching to your towing package is the last backup to keep the trailer from being completely lost from the back of a vehicle. 

I have seen trailers that have a single rope tied to the rear of a customer's car, or even no backup chains at all.  The picture on the left is a low-quality, dated system with open hooks.  Well all it takes is just the right type of bump or bounce and these chains can fall off.  Or if you have a tongue lock which is very rigid, corroded, or simply expired and not functioning at all, you are depending on GRAVITY to hold your trailer from falling off of your ball hitch.  Not the type of gamble you want to fool with!

The picture on the right shows the new tongue with locking safety hooks, and a large, new clevis pin.  A trailer tongue costs only about $25.00 and can be replaced by removing the lag bolts which hold it in place.  Loosing your rig, you might as well multiply that simple replacement cost x100 (literally) if the plaintiff is mildly motivated.

tongue1  tongue2

Wheel Chocks

A must have in general.  These prevent the trailer from rolling away.  So if you go on a trip and need to leave your trailer behind, you can park it in a spot at your hotel and keep it from rolling away accidentally.  They are pretty inexpensive, usually not more than $15 for a pair.  On the note of traveling, buy a trailer hitch safety lock from your local hardware store.  This significantly discourages theft.


Saving Your Trailer Lights

If you've ever been ready to go on a trip only to realize that your trailer lights are malfunctioning, you know it's a real headache figuring out what's wrong with the wiring.  Well the lighting circuit isn't all that complicated (generally a green/brown and yellow/brown combo).  However tracing the root of the problem can be an exercise in frustration if you have a converter box on your vehicle, or simply don't know your way around a multimeter.  What makes it even more fun is having to walk back and forth between your drivers seat and the back of the trailer to see which functions are working and which aren't.  Wedging a 2 x 4 onto your brake pedal is what most folks do during this process.

Generally, the root of most issues is going to be corrosion between connections, bad grounds, or a blown lamp.  Now the first two issues you can never really fully stop or prevent, but you can discourage corrosion between connections by making better connections than what your trailer light kit probably set you up with.  First off, don't use wire nuts or quick connectors that usually come with most kits. 

What you should use is heat shrink type wire splice connectors.  You splice two wires together, crimp the connector, than use a simple heat source (you can even use a lighter if that's all you have) to shrink the connector, effectively sealing off the spliced wires from moisture.

When you go to back your trailer into water during a launch or out while trailering, disconnect your wiring harness.  You should do this when you turn off your vehicle to load up gear, prior to backing into the water.  This gives your trailer lamps a few minutes to cool off.  What happens when you take a hot glass and dunk it in cold water?  It shatters.  Same thing happens with your trailer lights.  Even if your light kit says "submersible," those bulbs will still explode if they're on and hot when you back them under water.  The important aspect of this advice is to disconnect when launching.  Leave it unplugged after launching, dropping off the vehicle/trailer, and it will still be cold when you go to trailer.  By the time you have unloaded your gear and prepped your rig (after a day, or few days, of being on the water), the lights and wiring should be dry enough to be plugged back in for the journey home.

If you launch/trailer in salt water, just plan to replace your bulbs/wires with no rhyme or reason.  Best practices help decrease this hassle, but salt crytals are interesting chemical reactions, to say the least.  Below is a picture of a trailer lamp terminal corroded from salt. This actually only takes a single exposure to salt water to start. Usually after 3 times submersed (even with the 'submersible kits'), the lamp may stop working due to salt corrosion.


Your ground lead off the wiring harness (usually connected at the tongue) should be attached to the trailer frame and prior to attaching it, thoroughly clean that part of the trailer frame with a heavy grit sand paper until you see shiny metal.  Once attached, use a black neoprene dip or liquid tape to seal it off from exposure to the elements.  This will again discourage corrosion from screwing up the ground circuit of your light system. 


Remember that your trailer hitch is actually the ground to the negative side of your trailer light system.  SO, if you see your trailer lights flickering on and off with no boat on the trailer, it's probably because your trailer is aft-heavy, and the hitch isn't completely seated on the ball.  NO GROUND = NO CURRENT FLOW = erratic trailer light behavior.

Safe Transportation of Accessories

How many times have you been driving down the highway to your local waterway and saw one of those bright orange life jackets on the shoulder?  The highway department must have an entire storage unit full of these.  Even though a life jacket may seem harmless to fly out of the boat, consider what else could come out of your boat if you break heavily or swirve suddenly. 

Batteries, anchors, tackle boxes, coolers, gas cans, spare tires, oars; these all become grenades if you launch them.  There is a reason why there are safety belts in your car.  You slam on the brakes or hit something, you keep moving even though the car stops!  The same goes for everything else that ISN'T strapped down.  Make sure you place loose objects in a trunk or storage box, or insure they are securely strapped down.  DON'T put gas cans in your trunk for obvious reasons.  The battery pictures below is not secured adequately, utilizing a strap that is knotted.  Obviously the spare tire and paddle are not going to stay inside the boat if any aggressive evasive maneuver is made with the towing vehicle.

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Steering System Problems

Many times I do outboard installations, the owner wants me to update their steering system from the older style pulley and wire rope style. This is to the modern day style Seastar, single cable system that has a worm gear which locks the boat into a single direction for hands free steering at low speeds. The older style with pulleys even when new and calibrated does not allow for this. Most boats will pull to the right due to the natural spinning of the propeller when you let go of the steering wheel at much above 1/2 throttle.

It should be noted that the original style of steering with pulleys and ropes was used for nearly half a century, but are long but obsolete, with a discontinuation of this style since the late 1960's. So when someone buys a classic fiberglass or aluminum boat that has the original rigging, we are talking about 50+ year old components that are long overdue to be replaced! Old motors can be updated to newer style steering with a knowledgeable mechanic, and for relatively low cost in most cases (usually <$450.00). Your life is worth $450.00!

When the older style steering fails, the rope can break, but more commonly it slips off the steering wheel hub or jambs on one of the pulleys because of slop/slack in the line from stretched cables, springs, or just general wear and tear. With something that is 50 years old this happens more often than you might think. When you are moving along at WOT and lose steering control of the boat it takes very little to be thrown from the craft. In many instances the boat will start doing a 'circle of death' where it goes hard left or right, and you get run over and chopped up by the prop. This happens about a dozen times a year in New Hampshire (home state). There is nothing eerier than seeing an unmanned boat circling around, with marine patrol waiting to see when the engine will run out of fuel.

Below is a picture of a boat brought in by a customer where his modern day seastar steering had seized. Inspection of the cable did not reveal anything. Now these units can get stuck if no maintained/greased down a couple of times a season. The cable at the motor end will get stuck in the stern bracket. You usually know this is starting to happen ahead of time because the steering wheel will get stiff. In this instance, the hub itself was so badly corroded that it seized up. With the bezel hiding the hub, you would not have known this was the problem.

The boat was sitting on a mooring in a salt bay for all the warm months of the year, and the owner knew very little about boats in general. These fellas showed up to the shop with a small whaler they had inherited, and it was sitting on a trailer with a broken axle with two badly balded tires, which they had driven 60 miles to deliver the boat on!  Needless to say, some people should not be using boats, and should consider moving to Arizona or some other desert climate where there are no boats.

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