Trucking a boat

We live in Maine but used to keep our boat, Nada, in Louisiana (we recently sold Nada and bought a Pacific Seacraft 40). The idea was to avoid the Maine winters by taking Nada down to the Caribbean. From Louisiana it’s just a five-day passage across the Gulf of Mexico. Before hurricane season got underway, we would return to our home port on Bayou Castine, near Louisiana, lay Nada up, and head north for Maine’s lovely summers. Who says you have to be rich to enjoy the lifestyle of a millionaire?

Unfortunately, with this arrangement we missed the glorious summertime cruising to be had in the Gulf of Maine. It was just too far to sail Nada each year; besides which, Maine’s cruising season is so short it hardly justified the effort. This past year, however, we got the best of both worlds by putting Nada on a truck. It was an interesting exercise that taught me a lot about hauling boats overland. There are a surprising number of issues to be addressed.

First of all, there’s the matter of the truck and trailer. The majority of boat haulers have screw-pad trailers that require a crane or travel hoist to load and unload the boat, and a crane to unstep and restep the mast on a sailboat. This can be a significant additional expense. Once on the trailer, the boat is supported by the same kind of removable screw pads you find in boatyards. A few haulers, however, have submersible trailers with permanently connected hydraulic pads. The trailer can be lowered down a ramp right into the water. The boat is maneuvered into place, the hydraulic pads raised to support the boat, and the trailer pulled out of the water. No cranes or hoists are needed. In the case of sailboats, the hauler normally has a cherry-picker type of support vehicle that plucks the mast off the boat and lays it either on top of the boat or alongside it.

In spite of their convenience, hydraulic trucks are rarely used for long hauls. With a hydraulic trailer the boat-loading process makes it harder to precisely locate the boat on the trailer, harder to customize the location of the supports for the boat, and harder to ensure that everything is solidly fastened down to resist damage from the vibration, shocks, and high winds experienced on cross-country journeys at highway speeds. In the words of Robert Minoletti, manager of the U.S. division of Canadian-American Marine Transport Ltd.: "This is a high-dollar piece of equipment with many, many moving parts that is not really suited to long highway runs." Since this is a story about long-distance hauling, from here on I am going to concentrate on screw-pad trailers.

Trailer construction

There are two substantive construction issues to be addressed when selecting a screw-pad trailer. The first is the nature of the suspension; the second is the height of the bed. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of suspension: leaf-spring, which is found on older trailers, and compressed air (air ride), which is found on newer models. Truckers will go so far as to differentiate one air ride from another, but for the rest of us this is a little too esoteric. We just need to know that any air ride makes a significant difference in terms of cushioning the load. "The new trucks ride so much better than the old," said Rita Branstetter, who organizes boat transportation for Pacific Seacraft, a West Coast builder with an international market. "There is much less chance of damage."

Truck bed heights are all over the map. This may not matter, particularly with smaller power boats; but then again it may be a critical factor, particularly with sailboats but also when stacking smaller boats. As we will see shortly, if the total height of trailer and load exceeds 13 feet, six inches, the trucking cost can rapidly escalate. It is not uncommon for sailboats, notably those with a deep keel, to approach 12 feet in height with the bow and stern pulpits attached. A couple of inches one way or the other in the height of the truck bed may be the difference between the choice of removing the pulpitsa time-consuming process that risks damaging internal wiring and puts the pulpits themselves at riskor paying a stiff premium.

We ran into this problem with Nada, even with the bow pulpit removed. The truck bed was 16 inches off the road. Nada measured 12 feet from the base of her keel to the top of the stern pulpit. Two inches to spare, we thought. However, we failed to account for the inch or two of blocking beneath the keel that is necessary to get the lifting slings in and out, and also a slight rocker to the keel that raised the pulpit by another couple of inches. It took us two hours of "tweaking" the trim of the boat (reducing the blocking to the bare minimum and raising the bow to its limit, which in turn depressed the stern) to get us in at 13 feet, five inches. A less cooperative driver could have made life quite difficult and expensive.

The 16-inch road clearance we had at the center of our trailer is pretty typical. Some are higher and some considerably lower. According to Rob Griffith, the owner of Superior Boat Transport (the company we hired) his trailers "range anywhere from 10 inches off the ground to 14 inches, which is how far down you can get." The deck of the trailer will be a few inches above this, typically ending up 18 to 20 inches off the road. John Dudley of Dudley Boat Transport (a West Coast transporter) told me that they build their own trailers (in common with several other companies contacted). "We have the lowest trailers in the business. We can average four to six inches lower than anyone else. In fact, we have two trailers that are specially built with a slot for the keel which can go as low as three to four inches off the ground." Larry Jensen of Joule Yacht Transport (a large company with 180 trailers) also spoke of purpose-built, "keel basket" trailers in which the center is as little as six inches off the road. With higher loads these extra inches may be of critical importance.

Permits and escorts

What makes these inches so significant are the regulations covering oversize loads. As I mentioned, in many states anything more than 13 feet, six inches tall is considered "over height." An over-height vehicle requires special permits (an individual permit from each state to be passed through) and an escorting "pole car," which quite literally goes ahead with a pole to make sure the load will fit under bridges and other obstructions. "Lots of places in New England are particularly tough on height," said Larry Jensen, "whereas in the South we can often go as high as 14 feet, six inches without an escort." The absolute physical limits on height also vary from state to state. "We just brought a 61-foot boat that was 17 feet, four inches high from California to Florida," said Jensen. "There’s no way we could have done that in the Northeast."

Depending on the height of the load and the state being crossed, a second escort car may be required to bring up the rear. Escort cars typically cost from $0.85 a mile to $1.00 a mile each. It doesn’t take long to run up a major bill. The truck itself will be restricted to 10 hours of travel a day, during daylight hours only, and may be subjected to other restrictions (such as not using sections of road at certain times of the day). In many states it will not be allowed to move on Saturdays and Sundays.

Similar sorts of conditions are attached to wide loads. A truck from eight feet to 12 feet in width will be limited to daylight hours. Wider than 12 feet, and the escort conditions kick in. As the loads get wider, more and more conditions apply. Once again, the actual requirements vary from state to state. "Every single state that we travel in with oversize loads has different laws," said Dudley, "and each state has its own quirks. It’s hard explaining this stuff to customers." In California, for example, "anything over 13 feet, six inches is money, money, money!" said Branstetter. "And then when you go over 15 feet, it’s more money."

States also vary in how rigorously they measure the width of loads. This is commonly done by setting up a couple of poles and measuring between them with a tape measure. Dudley said that "at one time they let the driver hold one end of the tape, and they didn’t write many tickets." Some states are now installing electronic measuring devices.

In practice, most haulers seemed to feel they could fudge an inch or two, particularly on the width (because the full beam only occurs over a very limited distance). Length, surprisingly, is not an issue. This is because as boats get longer they get wider and higher, and it is this that causes problems. "You can permit as long as you want," said Griffith. "It’s the width and height that get you into trouble."

An example of this is the Nordhaven 40, a new powerboat being built by Pacific Seacraft. The boat is 16 feet, nine inches wide. With this kind of beam, trucking is incredibly expensive, and even then there are only a few places to which the boat can be taken, at which point it has to be put in the water and voyage to its destination. According to Griffith, once you get above 14 feet, six inches, it’s just as easy to float it around.

However, if there’s a will (and plenty of money) there’s generally a way. Joule Yacht Transport recently hauled a 78-foot-long, 17-foot-six-inch-wide racing boat from New York to San Francisco via Chicago (where it stopped for two weeks to participate in a race). "It took five trucks," said Jensen. "One for the boat, one for the keel, one for the cradles, one for the gear, and one for the 110-foot mast, but we got it there." In a similar vein, Canadian-American’s Minoletti reported hauling a 17-foot-wide, 17-foot-five-inch-tall boat from California to Wisconsin. "We had a pole car and a rear car all the way," he said. "The route the state gave us got us into trees that were six feet down on the boat. We had to have a couple of people on the boat moving them out of the way. At times we were only moving at one mph, but we delivered the boat without a scratch."

Supporting the load

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Before the truck and trailer ever hits the highway, the boat must be properly loaded and securely fastened down.

"The most important thing in transporting boats is distributing the load on the trailer for the best ride, making sure that the trailer won’t be damaged, putting the screw supports in the right place, and tying the boat down," said Griffith.

Unless the boat is in a cradle, the keel is generally set on some blocking that takes most of the boat’s weight (the exception being those instances where the keel is set in a slot). Next, a bow bar is set in place to support the bow. Finally, four or more screw pads are set around the hull, not so much to take the weight as to hold the boat in an upright position. Suitable placement of these screw pads is critical. "Some of the racing boats have what we call ‘eggshell’ skins," said Dudley. "These dimple really easily." The pads must be placed at locations where there is sufficient structural reinforcement inside the hull to take the load. "Most of the drivers have their own techniques for finding bulkheads and other structural members," said Dudley. "I used to tap with my wedding ring. Given the experience of our driversthey’ve been with us an average of 20 yearsthere’re not too many boats they haven’t already seen."

This business of experience was stressed by other companies. "With each sailboat the load is different," said Griffith. "But our drivers have been at it long enough to pretty much know where to put the pads to support the boat without damage. Over time they get to know the boats pretty well. If necessary, they work with the manufacturers to determine the best place." The driver’s knowledge is particularly important on those frequent occasions where a boat is collected from a marina or boatyard without the owner or builder being present to advise on pad placement. Once the boat is loaded it becomes the trucking company’s responsibility, so if any mistakes have been made it may cost the trucker dearly. Because of this, if the driver is not happy, you are unlikely to be able to get him or her to move. "Sometimes," said Griffith, "people just don’t seem to care about the boat, and we are trying to make the best of a mediocre situation."

If the boat is in a cradle, the trucking company may insist that it be removed and loaded as described above. This is because of a reluctance to put any trust in the cradle and also because the added height of the cradle often makes the load over height. If the cradle is accepted, the load will probably still be supported by screw jacks in the usual fashion.

Tying things down

With the load in place, it must be secured. This is normally done with a series of webbing straps, winched down tightly. The idea is to have the boat and trailer attached to one another securely enough to eliminate movement between the various points of contact. This is turn will minimize the chance of damage. Nevertheless, any point where the trailer, screw pads, or straps touch the boat, there is the potential for damage, so carpet padding should be inserted at all these points. "All of our drivers go overkill on padding, especially under the straps" said Dudley. "In fact, you could say that carpet is a boat-hauler’s best friend." With cradled boats, pay attention to the contact points between boat and cradle.

This is work that can’t be rushed. Setting the screw pads in place and strapping down a boat takes time. A smaller boat may be secured in a couple of hours, but it is not unusual for a larger sailboat to take three or four hours, or even longer. What with juggling the position of our boat and loading the mast and other equipment, we were at it for the better part of six hours.

Loaded and secured properly, the boats themselves rarely get damaged. Sailboat masts and booms are another matter. Some haulers will strap these down on top of the boat, which gets them high and out of the way of flying stones and road dirt but carries the risk of damaging the boat. Most haulers, however, like to carry them alongside the boat in a rack. Whatever is done, it is almost impossible to stop the mast from continuously flexing to some degree, which greatly exacerbates the chances of damage at all the support points. Adequate padding is absolutely critical. Even so, Branstetter noted: "We have had a lot of small mast damage from rocks coming up off the road or abrasion from the tie downs."

The key thing from the shipper’s point of view is to strip a mast of all its rigging, so that this is not banging against the mast walls; to take off the spreaders; to remove antennas, light fixtures, electronics, and so on; and to thoroughly pad any fixtures that cannot be removed.

Most truckers also like to see a mast, particularly if it is new, thoroughly wrapped, preferably in bubble wrap, with the wrapping securely taped in place so that it will not blow loose. At the least the mast should have a layer of cardboard or foam protection, tightly wrapped in cling-foil plastic. This is quite a bit of work and can add appreciably to the overall bill if not done by the boat owner. All too often this step is ignored, and the mast suffers some minor road damage (I’m speaking from first-hand experience here!). Most times, this damage is going to be the shipper’s problem, since he or she will probably be asked to sign a release form absolving the trucking company from liability for fittings lost from the mast or damage caused by rigging left in place.

Insurance and contracts

This brings us to the question of insurance, and who pays for what if there is any damage. Most truckers these days carry at least $1,000,000 in general liability insurance, but this doesn’t cover damage to the load. For this, separate Property Damage (PD) insurance is needed. This will have its own Physical Limits (PL). The limit may be as low as $100,000, although the boat truckers I talked to mostly have around $200,000, while Joule Yacht Transport has $500,000 and Canadian-American, which specializes in expensive yachts and big boats, has $2 million. The trucker can always get a rider for more, generally at little cost, and as often as not at no extra cost to the customer. It’s up to the customer, however, to check on what insurance is in place, to insist on more if necessary, and to get a copy of the rider.

There is no deductible with these policies, so any insured damage to the boat and ancillary equipment will be covered in full. But it is important to know what is, and perhaps more importantly what is not, insured. Typically, nothing inside the boat is covered. If the gear is improperly stowed, resulting in damage, that’s the shipper’s problem. And if things work loose and fall off the boat during transport, that’s also the shipper’s problem. This includes (and may well be spelled out in the shipping contract) such things as hatches, ports, rails, windshields, cowlings, winches, deckplates, lights, canvas parts, and more particularly any part that is mounted to the boat.

In other words, the trucking company will not "warrant the integrity of the shipper’s boat. Therefore, the shipper assumes total liability for all such losses (quoted from a sample contract)."

This same contract continues: "Items stowed within the boat itself are shipped as ‘Contents unknown.’ Therefore it is the shipper’s responsibility to prepare his boat for over land transport with the express intent of safety to the interior and its contents. All loose objects, instruments, ovens, anything within the boat including small items such as galley hardware, dishes, etc., using common sense must be packaged in such a way as to make the trip over land safely."

Additionally, "equipment mounted in any way that exposes it to damage, such as radios, depth sounders, compasses, knotmeters, etc. must be removed and secured inside the boat."

When shipping secondhand boats, some trucking companies may require a separate condition form to be filled in and may also ask their drivers to photograph, and detail, any pre-existing damage. This is to protect the trucking company against unfair claims for damage.

"Frequently," said Griffith, "the boat has been sitting in the yard for a long time, and the owner is not there when it is being loaded. There may be problems that have developed since it was last seen, or that have been forgotten. We don’t want to be held liable for these."

"Once the boat is put on our trailer to the time it comes off we are responsible for any damage to it, so long as it complies with our contract in terms of securing the interior, and so on." Should there be damage, it is important to document it as soon as possible, and preferably to note it on the delivery ticket. For minor damage (say, below $1,000) most of the trucking companies will pay out of their own pockets but will normally want a couple of estimates before writing a check. With major damage, the insurer will likely hire its own surveyor.


There is, however, one potential cause of hull damage when on the road that the insurance will probably not cover. This is damage caused by shrink-wrap.

Shrink-wrap seems like an ideal way to protect a boat, but all the truckers I contacted stressed that unless it is put on right, it can cause more problems than it solves. Dudley was typical in commenting that "as a transportation company, we really dislike shrink-wrap. If its not taped right, or shrunk right, a hole forms, and then air gets in there. This blows up dirt which gets under the plastic, and all of a sudden it looks like someone took a big scouring pad to the boat."

The common view is that a boat is made to get wet and so should not need any special measures to protect it from the weather. Inevitably, on a cross-country trip it will accumulate some road dirt, and there is likely to be a greasy film from the truck exhaust, but it’s far easier to remove this with a pressure washer than it is to repair damage to the gel coat.

Unloading and payment

When the boat arrives at its destination, it will have to be met by a crane or travel hoist capable of lifting it off the truck. But before the trucker will undo the first strap, it’s time to pay the piper! Haulers invariably require a cashier’s check made out for the full amount. "So what happens," I asked, "if no one shows up with the money, or the shipper tries to use a credit card or some other form of payment?" Surprisingly, this rarely happens. Most people, it seems, are in love with their boats and are only too keen to see them and to get them back in the water. On the rare occasions when there’s a problem, the truckers generally won’t release the boat until the check is handed over. It seems truckers can be fairly patient. "We’ll wait a day or two," said Griffith, "but if it takes any longer than this we’ll put it in storage or work something out with the marina."

Once the boat is off the truck and before it goes in the water, as always with any haul-out the transducers need to be checked to make sure that all are in place. I well remember a boat delivered for launching at our local yard. The cabin was locked so the through-hulls and transducers could not be checked. The owner and the marina that hauled and loaded the boat were contacted. Both were certain all transducers were in place and all through-hulls closed. The owner was keen to have the boat launched, which was duly accomplished late in the afternoon, after which the lads went home for the night. A missing transducer put her on the bottom by the morning.

Assuming the boat doesn’t sink, there will still be a number of things to do, such as restepping the mast on a sailboat. All this takes more time and money. But at the end of the day you should have the boat where you want it at what is ultimately a very reasonable cost.

In our case the trucking bill from Louisiana to Maine for Nada, a heavy-displacement, 39-foot sailboat, was $3,388. By the time we added in the crane at both ends for unstepping and stepping the mast, the two travel hoists, and some yard time, we were looking at an additional $1,000. This is a lot to pay to cruise in Maine, but considering my hectic schedule, and the impossible amount of time it would have taken to sail Nada around (not to mention the wear and tear on her equipment) we found it to be acceptable. However, had we been over height or over width (Nada is exactly 12 feet wide), we would have been looking at roughly a 50% premium, which would have made the numbers far less attractive.

The bottom line is that trucking most boats is a pretty routine and reliable operation. The key is to find a solid, experienced trucking company, and to make sure that the boat is properly prepared for the road. You can then pretty much depend upon it arriving in as good a shape as it left. n

My thanks to the following boat-hauling companies for help in preparing this article:

Superior Boat Transport 800-256-5671

Dudley Boat Transport 800-426-8120

Canadian American Marine Transit 800-392-6660

Joule Yacht Transport 800-237-0727

Moger Yacht Transport 800-533-7527

Contributing editor Nigel Calder is the author of several books, including Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual, published by International Marine.

By Ocean Navigator