I bought my first small boat about 20 years ago. When I started looking at boats and deciding what to buy, I intended to use it for duck hunting (a sport in which I no longer participate) and fishing. I needed something that would take a motor, something that could be put in at places other than at a boat ramp, was reasonably portable, and cheap. Most of the local canoe guys thought I was crazy when I told them I had no interest in running white water, and for wanting to be able to mount a motor so I could go upstream. I mean, man, like who wants to go upstream? Dude, like all the white water runs downstream, man. Going upstream isn’t cool, y’know?
A kayak was absolutely out, and I’m still somewhat uncomfortable at the idea of any kind of craft that requires me to learn to do an Eskimo roll to use it. That people actually use boats that are more or less guaranteed to capsize eventually doesn't make much sense, and while I've used a kayak once or twice, I can take them or leave them. I operate on the theory that a boat is supposed to prevent me from getting my head under water, and I shouldn’t have to learn how to return it to the upright position after capsizing.
Most canoes weren’t all that attractive, either. Canoes have the advantage of portability and ease of use, but in the New River the current is fairly stiff in the spots I like to go, and I didn’t much fancy having to paddle against it. Mounting a motor, even a small one, on a canoe is at best a jury-rig situation, and at worst a PITA. The motor should be placed in the center of the boat’s long axis to be used efficiently. I found out too that there is an inverse relationship between weight and price. I could get a canoe that was light enough to carry over my head, but I was going to have to pay well over sixteen hundred 1989 dollars to get it, and Kevlar isn’t intended to be bashed against rocks.
In the event I bought a Coleman square-stern “Scanoe” from a now-defunct discount store in Christiansburg for about $400 all up. It was pretty much what I was looking for, and it served me well for more than a decade. I finally wore out its Ram-X polyethylene hull, grinding it against the rocks and shoals. I repaired it as best I could but 15 years of being beaten up eventually rendered it unrepairable. I needed a new boat. The replacement was a very similar square- stern Old Town “Discovery Sport” boat that I hope will last me at least as long as the (much less expensive) Coleman did.
One of my original requirements, a point on which I was adamant, was that I did NOT want a boat that had to be trailered. I wanted something I could put on top of the car and launch anywhere. In 1989 I was still driving my 1967 Volvo sedan. With a couple of carrier bars on it, this humble Swedemobile carried the Coleman with ease. In 1993 later I bought my first truck, with a cap; and the boat went on top of that easily. Ditto the Old Town in its turn.
But 20 years have passed, and I’m at the point where getting a 109-pound boat on top of a truck cap 7 feet high is a trick I find increasingly difficult to perform. I can still do it, after a fashion, but it takes me a lot of time and a lot of flipping and levering and hoo-hah, and my bum left shoulder complains about it a lot. I like to take the Old Town to the beach in North Carolina each year, too. Until this year we’ve always driven the truck for that reason. I have an elderly Ford F-250 with a 5-speed transmission that carries anything we could possibly want, but my wife hates the truck and complains about it all the way down and all the way back, seven hours each way.
This year I told her that if she didn’t want to take the truck again, we could carry the boat on her Mazda MPV van: it would be more comfortable and she could share the driving for a change. She was skeptical about this proposal, but I proved it could be done, so she grudgingly agreed to try it. It’s marginally easier to get the Old Town on top of the van, as it’s a couple of feet lower than the truck cap, but to compensate for this I have to be a sight more careful about not scratching anything. There is also the issue of getting the boat to and from the water in North Carolina from our cottage. The boat ramp is about a mile away. With the truck I’d just heave it into the bed during the week, only putting it on top for the trip down and back up. Now, a boat that’s been dragged through sand and mudflats gets pretty….icky. Sliding it into an already-dirty truck bed is one thing, but into the back of a nice a nice suburban housewife’s mini-van is quite another. She would not be amused at the prospect of having to clean up fish scales, bits of oyster shells, mud, and necrotic fish parts when we returned home. Of course, I’d actually clean it, but I’d have heard about it for years afterwards, so I began to think a bit on this matter.
Sometimes the way to get your wife to agree to an idea that she would ordinarily dismiss as Just Another Stupid Male Notion is to present her with a less-palatable option. That’s how I convinced her to let me buy my first truck (a pig of a 1983 GMC that had no redeeming qualities whatever): I brought home a dead deer in her Honda Civic hatchback, because I couldn’t get it in the rear seat of the Volvo. I was very careful about spreading plastic around, and keeping blood and hair off the upholstery (most of it, and besides, the upholstery was red and you couldn’t hardly tell it had blood on it anyway) but watching me yank the carcass of Bambi’s Mom out of the back hatch suddenly made her see the light and agree to a truck. But I digress.
I pointed out the disadvantages of using the van as a shuttle to and from the boat ramp for a week, but said that if it was OK with her, well, I would clean up the van when we got home. That’s when she bought into the notion of a trailer.
I actually had to convince myself, too. I didn’t want a trailer, especially, but for the reasons stated above, I finally broke down. This year we’ll tow the boat behind the Mazda. Not only will she ride in comfort (and share the driving), the boat will serve as extra storage space for gear and supplies. I think maybe the final touch to my argument, which shows my debating skill, is that she was not happy at the prospect of my putting the Evinrude outboard motor into the back of the van, and having to breath gasoline fumes.
And this way, I don’t have to strain my back lifting the boat up or hauling it in and out. A boat trailer is, well, decadent, but as I get older I get more reconciled to decadence. Besides, the cost of the trailer was less than the co-pay on my insurance for herniated disk surgery.
The trailer had to be as light and convenient as possible, and after looking at options I chose a Trailex SUT-350, purchased through the Castlecraft Company. This is a pretty minimalist rig-out made of extruded aluminum. It was shipped disassembled via UPS for a total price of $1192, which included an accessory package. This latter included a spare tire and carrier, and a set of “Bearing Buddies,” axle caps that are pressure filled with grease so that water won’t seep in and ruin the bearings.
It came to me in three sizeable cartons, and took about a day to assemble. I worked very slowly, partly because I had to work from what must be the worst set of instructions known to man. While it’s obvious that they were in fact written by someone whose native language was English, I doubt if this individual had very good grades in Composition & Exposition class in high school. Minor details—such as where the various parts go and how they’re supposed to fit—clearly weren’t high priority for the writer. A LOT of this sort of thing was left out.
Luckily I’m pretty handy with tools and have a good mechanical mind, so when dealing with this sort of thing I can usually figure out what tab goes in which slot, and how the frammistat is to be connected to the veeblefetzer. Nevertheless I found myself calling Trailex for help several times to clear up knotty points. It was a damned good thing they included an exploded diagram or I’d have been completely lost. I understand that Trailex now has a DVD on how to assemble their products but I didn’t get one in my package.
The design itself is very clever: the mechanical engineer given the job knew his trade. The main spar and several sub-assemblies are clearly designed for ease of production, and with a thought to the poor schlub who has to put it together. That said, it does take more than a minimal kit of tools to do the job properly. I wouldn’t have cared to tackle it with an open ended wrench and a screwdriver, and was glad for my sizeable collection of automotive repair tools, especially my ½” drive socket set.
There are slots running the length of the main spar and other significant sub-assemblies. T-shaped bolts slide into these slots, and zinc-plated nuts go over the threaded part that sticks out after the bolt is in the slot. Very clever, and even more so in that it allows you to adjust the sub assemblies to the exact configuration need to hold any boat, or to move the axle frame along the main spar so that the tongue weight is correct. Unfortunately, in addition to having sent me incomprehensible instructions, Trailex shorted me four bolt-and-nut sets. Additionally one of the spring bushings was cracked on arrival, so it took several days to get all the parts in one place and complete the assembly.
The trailer is sprung with single-leaf springs, and has a cargo capacity of 350 pounds, more than enough for my boat and all its stuff. I had thought about the smaller and cheaper SUT-200, with a capacity of 200 pounds, but Castlecraft advised me that the SUT-200 wasn’t really suited to highway speeds, and that with the boat and motor I’d be pushing its load limit anyway. So I decide to move up to the SUT-350, which in addition to having the higher capacity, is intended for high speed towing. All up, when loaded, the MVW will be 500 pounds, an easy tow even behind a mini-van. It’s light enough that it’s movable by hand, so it can be used as a launching dolly. I won’t have to back the van up to the loading ramp, just unhitch the trailer and roll it into the water. I’m not sure I hooked up the lights properly (those instructions weren’t much better than the rest) but I think so, and I’ll find out when I get a hitch on the van and plug in the wiring harness.
Of course I had to get license plates for it, the Virginia DMV wants its pound of flesh. This entailed a stupefying wait at the Christiansburg office, as you can’t title and register a vehicle by mail. It also entailed another $120 in fees and sales tax. To avoid having to do it on a regular basis, I bought permanent plates.
One of my minor sources of amusement is vanity license plates with Biblical references on them: as the old saying goes, even the Devil can quote Scripture for his own purposes. For this fishing boat trailer, I opted for "GEN 9 2" which seemed very appropriate:
And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.
Genesis Chapter 9, Verse 2
Update, July 26, 2009:
The Outdoorsman (right) and his partner Rick, with the Good Ship Pinfish Professor after arrival. Note the orange
flags...you can't see the trailer out the back window when the boat's not on it!
The proof of the trailer is in the towing: last week we took it to Oak Islandfor our annual beach trip and it worked beautifully. As a matter of principle, Mrs Outdoorsman presented numerous reasons why the trailer was a bad idea typical of a man: a) it was going to break loose on the highway and kill people; b) it was, alternatively, going to surge forward in a sudden stop, come in through the van's rear hatch, and kill us; c) it was going to jack-knife and flip us over; d) we would be unable to go more than 30 miles per hour, towing "all that weight" (we towed maybe half the maximum weight); e) we'd never be able to get up hills; f) it was going to be impossible to find a place to park when we stopped for meals and gas; and g) miscellaneous other inevitable and equally lethal disasters.
But for four hundred miles down and four hundred back, there were no problems at all, clipping along at 70 MPH most of the time. I stowed all the boat gear in it, leaving ample room in the Mazda for all the other stuff we schlepp back and forth. And on the island it made launch and recovery far, far easier than it ever has been before. It's sufficiently light that even loaded up it can be moved by hand: we'd drive to the ramp, unhitch, position it on the ramp, and turn the van around. Then hitch up, roll it a little farther down and launch. Recovery was done the same way: I never had to back the trailer up at all. The rig drew admiring remarks from the loungers at the marina, except one guy, who, when he saw the launch, cried, "Hey! That's cheating! You're supposed to back it up!"