Zen and the Art of Trailer Maintenance

I overheard the engineer
Say something ‘bout the landing gear
And there’s no way that bird’s going to fly…
So there’s no plane on Sunday
Maybe the one come Monday
Make the best of a bad situation
Is all you can do…”

Jimmy Buffett

July 23rd

The day I have been waiting for since I started building Grey Fox in 2017 has finally come… I’ve loaded up the boat on the trailer and am heading up to Brooklin, Maine for 4 days of sailing in one of the greatest places on earth to sail a small boat! The Calendar Islands Yawl was designed for coastal cruising in Maine, and that’s what I have been dying to do with it. 

I’ve recruited my old college roommate John to join me as crew.  He’s flying up from Washington DC and I will pick him up at the Portland airport on our way Down East. We’ll be sailing in the “Small Reach Regatta”, a rendezvous and not really a regatta, where over 65 small sail-and-oar boats get together and sail for three days in a friendly, non-competitive and truly photo-worthy fleet.  No engines allowed.

Yesterday I sailed the boat around from its home base at HHYC to the nearest boat ramp and put it on the trailer, and spent most of the evening getting it ready for the 450-mile drive to Maine and packing all the camping equipment into the car.  So this morning, I’m ready to roll.   EXCEPT…

As I make one last check of the trailer and the boat before I roll out the driveway, I am confronted with a very flat tire on the trailer.   No big deal, I have a spare, so I get out the jack and wrench and proceed to remove the offending not-so-round wheel. But the nuts are rusted on tight and despite huge efforts, the application of an inordinate amount of foot-pounds of torque, and a whole lot of swearing, I can only get two of them to even turn. But they just turn and turn and don’t come off.   Rust-welded together and now with the threads stripped.  JUST GREAT… I have a flat and I can’t change it.  

Since I can’t get the tire and wheel off, I try inflating it to see if I can find the leak.  It seems like the tire is not seated on the rim and is leaking at the bead.  I try reseating it by hand and pump it up with my trusty bike pump.   Listening closely, I don’t hear any leaking air.   Just about then I get a text message from John that he’s about to take off and will be in Portland in a couple of hours.  I text back that I had a flat but it seems like a slow leak so I’ll hit the road, bring the pump with me and hope for the best.

About 3 miles from home and before getting on I-95, I stop and check the tire.  It seems fine; maybe this will work.   I get on the freeway and head off.  At the first rest stop in Connecticut, about 20 miles from home, I stop to get gasoline and check the tire.   Before I even get to the side of the trailer with the previously flat tire, I see mud all over the OTHER wheel.   Looking closely, i see that the mud is really grease, and the bearing is coming apart.   SONOFABITCH! I can’t bike-pump my way to Maine with a bad bearing. 

With visions of the wheel coming off at 65 miles an hour and my boat getting wrecked, I quickly abandon any hope of getting Grey Fox to Maine today.   I decide to try to make it the 20 miles back home and figure out a plan from there.  I make it back home without calamity, but Grey Fox is stranded there. This trailer is just betraying me.

OR… have I been betraying it?  I’ve had it for 5 years and have never done a lick of maintenance on it.  Those wheels have been dunked in salt water at least 30 times.  Every time they are submerged they go through a hot-cold shock that causes the grease to shrink a little and allows seawater to get in.  I guess you’re supposed to grease those bearings at least once a year.

I maintain my boat to a tee. I fix every scratch on the boat and inspect it closely almost every time I use it.  Folks at our club give me a hard time for being such a stickler, and think I treat the boat better than I treat my wife.  (I don’t think that’s true, they both get pretty good attention).  But I completely neglected the trailer.  What a … dumbass.

Just about the time I pull back into my driveway, another text from John informs me that he has just landed in Portland.  I call him to speak live.  “Sorry pal, but we have a major problem.  The wheel bearing is shot and it will take at least a couple of days to get it fixed.  As my son’s favorite song from his favorite off-Broadway show ‘Spring Awakening’ goes, ‘here’s the moment you know you’re totally f**cked.’”

“Didn’t you say there are going to be 65 boats at this event we’re going to?  Don’t you think we can bum space on some of those boats?” offers John.

“You’re right – I’m sure we can find boats to crew on. That’s the solution.  Sometimes you’re pretty smart. I guess we’ll go boat-less and hope for sympathy from the other boat skippers.”

I proceed to park the boat and trailer in the driveway.   All the camping gear is in the car, so all I need to do is remove some boat stuff that I don’t need from the car and I’ll be off.  Hmm… don’t need that big anchor.  30 minutes later I text John and tell him I’ll see him in Portland at around 4pm. He’ll have to find something to keep him occupied for the next six hours. 

Freed of the trailer and the mental burden of stressing about how to get it repaired, I’m off and making about 55 knots Speed Over Ground in the Toyota land yacht.  I roll into Portland at 4:30 and pick up John, and before 8:00 we’re in Brooklin.  We check in at the campground and then head to the Brooklin Inn, the only food establishment in town that’s open on a Tuesday, for some dinner.  We made it!  Just without the boat that was kind of the whole point of the trip.   But we’ll find other boats to ride.  We’re making the best of a bad situation.

Author: Larchmont Jim

A 50-something investment banker from Larchmont, New York (about 15 miles from midtown Manhattan). Amateur small boat sailer, boatbuilder, kayaker, musician. I grew up spending summers sailing the New England coast on my grandfather’s beautiful 47’ 1952 Sparkman & Stevens wooden yawl. I’ve lived in Larchmont, a major and historic sailing center on Long Island Sound, for 25 years, but career and family obligations kept me off the water for all of my 30s and 40s, and only about 7 years ago did I get back on the water, first in sea kayaks, and then in small boats.

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