If you’re new to trailer sailing, you could be unsure about your trailer’s brake system (or lack thereof). If you own an older trailer, the system could be badly corroded from many wet launches and need repair or replacement. If your trailer doesn’t have a brake system, you might be wondering why and if you should have one. This post gives you the facts you need to trailer safely and legally.
My original trailer for Summer Dance had hydraulic surge brakes when it was new but those were eaten away by salt water at the time when I bought the boat. The replacement trailer had no brakes at all.
Our tow vehicle is a 1998 Toyota Tacoma Extra Cab 4×4 with a 3.4 liter V6 (190 hp) engine. With the fiberglass canopy, it weighs in at an even 4,000 pounds. Our 1984 Calkins trailer and sailboat, not including the outboard motor, fuel, water, and other gear weighs around 3,200 pounds. If you have a public, solid waste transfer station in your area, you may be able to weigh your boat for free like I did when we lived in Washington state.
The Washington State Patrol Inspection and Trailer Requirements specify that all trailers exceeding 3,000 pounds or 40% of the tow vehicle weight must have brakes, so ours qualified on both points. Our typical load is more than 200 pounds above the maximum allowable weight and it is also 80% of the tow vehicle weight, double the allowance. Plus, it’s just common sense to not expect to be able to slow or stop a load of that size without an additional braking system.
When your towed load is a small percentage of the towing vehicle weight, the weight of the vehicle helps to control the weight of the load around corners and when braking. When the towed load is a high percentage of the weight of the towing vehicle, it can be the opposite. The weight of the load can overcome the weight of the vehicle in corners and when braking, resulting in understeer and oversteer (what truck drivers call jack-knife). Without trailer brakes, if you are involved in any kind of traffic accident, not the least of which could be rear-ending a vehicle in front of you, you could be held liable due to negligence.
I chose to add a complete, new surge brake system to my trailer. It wasn’t particularly difficult, the parts were easy to buy, and it made towing Summer Dance much more relaxing and safer.
Surge brake systems are relatively simple and effective. That’s the good news. The design choices are few: drum type or caliper type. Drum type systems are slightly lower cost and strong enough for most trailerable sailboats, so that’s what I chose. But the tongue extension of our trailer posed a couple of uncommon build challenges. First, the tongue extension is a 2-1/2″ square tube but surge brake actuators are only available in 3″ or larger sizes. Second, I need to be able to disconnect the hydraulic line at the actuator to extend the tongue for launching and then reconnect it for towing.
Parts for these systems have standard sizes and have been around for a long time, which means suppliers are many and prices are competitive. More good news. I compared prices from both local and online suppliers. I try to buy local when the cost difference is negligible or service after the sale is important. Local discount suppliers had reasonable prices, especially when shipping costs (nearly $100) are added to online prices.
But if you can find a free shipping promotion like I did, the savings makes a big difference. I settled on etrailer.com. All the major parts: Demco actuator with breakaway lock, Dexter drums, Demco galvanized free-backing assemblies, hydraulic line kit, bearings, and seals came to less than $400 delivered. Delivery was fast and the packing was excellent. Bob Gisi at etrailer.com was prompt when I requested a technical review of my order before shipment and he was very helpful when replying to installation questions by email. I can recommend them without hesitation.
Except for the challenges mentioned above, the installation was pretty straightforward. The trailer axle already had mounting flanges and the brake assemblies bolted right on. The drums and bearings were direct replacements for the old brake-less hubs. Other than a dog fight drilling a hole in the axle to mount the hydraulic line tee, the pre-cut and pre-flared steel lines were easily to route through existing holes in the frame to the tongue.
I secured the lines to the outside of the axle with stainless steels ties hoping they will last longer than plastic, but they didn’t tighten as well as I had hoped. You can also secure them with U straps and screws if you want to drill more holes in the axle.
Biting my tongue over the tongue
It’s at the tongue where I got to (had to) be creative. As I said before, the actuator didn’t fit the tongue extension and the hydraulic line needed to be disconnectable. If your trailer doesn’t have a tongue extension like mine, then you should be able to get an actuator the fits your tongue perfectly and you can connect the hydraulic line directly to the actuator.
I solved the first challenge by installing two 1/4″ thick spring shackles as shims between the actuator’s 3″ wide mounting flanges and the 2-1/2″ wide tongue. The shackle holes were almost perfectly spaced out of the package but required slight resizing. I made a couple of 2-1/4″ long spacers out of 1/2″ steel pipe to reinforce the inside of the tongue tube so that I could torque down the actuator mounting bolts through all four pieces.
I solved the hydraulic line problem by installing a quick disconnect fitting between the actuator and the steel hydraulic line. These are the same kind of fittings used for portable pressure washer hoses. Choose brass fittings so they won’t rust. Mine required 1/8″ to 1/4″ adapters on both sides of the fitting.
I inserted a short brake hose between the quick disconnect fitting and the steel line and secured the end of the steel line to the frame with a handmade bracket. The result is that I can easily disconnect the brake line along with the lights before launching and reconnect them before hitting the road. I’m pleased that this doesn’t introduce air into the system and affect braking.
After all the hardware is installed, all that remains is to fill the reservoir with fluid, bleed air from the lines, adjust the brake shoes, and road test. The installation instructions cover each of these steps.
The new setup is much easier to stop now. Besides being safer, it also makes trailering a more relaxing experience, which is especially important on longer trips.
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