Are You Ready for a Breakdown? by Mike Schoonveld

Are You Ready for a Breakdown? by Mike Schoonveld

Launching a boat from a trailer isn’t supposed to be an exciting task. Getting in the boat, heading out to the lake, catching some fish, now that’s fun and exciting. But just backing down the ramp and floating ol’ Wave-Whacker off the bunks is a rather mundane chore.

Unless the brakes on the tow vehicle decide it’s time to malfunction! All of a sudden the slow descent down the ramp, the boat floating free and the rest of the procedure turns into a power launch.

That’s what happened to me.

I suppose I was lucky.

A few minutes earlier I’d been speeding down a busy highway filled with other cars and trucks. Had the brakes failed then, I would have been in a bigger pickle than just shooting my boat off the trailer. Actually, when the boat floated free, the last ounce of brake fluid left in the system actuated just enough pressure to slow and stop the truck to keep from power launching the tow vehicle.

So now what?

The boat was floating nicely. The truck and trailer were safe in the parking lot. There was a little puddle of brake fluid dripping from the ruptured brake line and I was 50 miles from home. What would you do in this situation? Here’s what I did.

I pulled out my cell phone, scrolled through the apps showing on the screen until I found the icon with the BoatUS logo and touched it. In a few seconds, I was connected with a person ready and able to help. I told her the problem, I told her what marina I was located and I told her there was no hurry. I’d traveled to the lake to go fishing, the boat was floating, my fishing partners were due any minute and the truck wouldn’t be any more broken in early afternoon than it was right now at dawn.

A bit of information was relayed back and forth and she went to work. Fifteen minutes later, my phone rang and Terry, from a local towing company, was on the line.

“I’m sure this is a bit strange,” I told him. “I imagine most of the time when you get a call it’s because someone needs your help and needs it as soon as possible.” I explained what happened and then asked, “Can you meet me at the marina at 1PM?”

The meeting scheduled, all I had to do was concentrate on picking the best place to fish and the best lures to use. We had a great fishing trip and I was back at the dock in plenty of time to meet up with Terry and the tow truck.

I’d already moved the truck and trailer to a deserted spot in the parking lot and disconnected the trailer. When Terry arrived, we quickly hooked up the trailer to his flat-bed and he backed the trailer down the ramp. Soon the boat was loaded, the gear stowed and road-ready.

We temporarily disconnected the boat and trailer, winched the truck up onto the flatbed and chained it secure. Then we reattached the boat and trailer and I was on my way home.

boat flatbed broken down

I’d called the garage where I take most of my vehicles with mechanical issues and made an appointment. So we dropped the boat off at my house, and then hauled the broken-brake truck to the mechanic.

Once done, I asked Terry what the procedure was to pay him. “All taken care of,” he said. “The boat place paid me with a credit card.”

“Just curious,” I asked. “What’s would have been the bill if I hadn’t had the insurance?”

“Hook-up fee, mileage, truck and trailer at five bucks per mile, comes to $600,” Terry said.

I buy a BoatUS membership each year for the same reason I belong to the National Rifle Association, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and other groups. I believe in their mission. BoatUS is the most powerful advocate for recreational boaters in the country.

When legislators or rogue bureaucrats dream up new and innovative ways to regulate boats and boaters, BoatUS goes to bat with email campaigns, lobbying efforts and educational projects, all from the boater’s point of view. Do you have a boat “driver's license?” A few years ago the U.S. government proposed one. Thanks to BoatUS, it didn’t gain much momentum. Have you had to cross your fingers and pour E-15 gas in your boat’s gas tank? Thank BoatUS. The basic membership is.

Luckily, I have more than just the basic membership. I add a limited amount to my annual dues check to get the “Trailer Assist” option from BoatUS. (The smartphone app is free.) I trailer my boat thousands of miles each year and there is a myriad of things that could go wrong. Think flat tires, wheel bearing meltdowns or a blown brake line as you are launching your boat. Is it worth it? You do the math.


There are several sounds you don't want to hear when you are in a boat. An unaccounted for splash is one of them or a healthy crunch coming from the hull as you strike a rock, barely floating log or the sound of silence as your motor shuts down unexpectedly.

I can think of others, as well, but the most recent unwelcome sound on my boat was the motor unexpectedly revving up to high rpm's as the boat slowed to a quick stop. Motor going faster, boat going slower—something is amiss! Eventually, I learned a gear had given way or the propellor shaft had broken in the lower unit.

The immediate problem was we were drifting with the wind approximately 5 miles offshore and 8 miles from the harbor on a day few other boats even left the docks.

We had a game plan for the morning, but not one that included a lower unit failure.

Again, I pulled out my cell phone (luckily, I had a couple of bars of signal) and phoned BoatUS. Once the dispatch person was on the phone, I relayed my customer number, my GPS coordinates, and my phone number and they went to work. In a few hours, we were back at the launch ramp where we’d left earlier that morning.

boat towing great lakes fishing

The fee? No charge since I had opted for the Unlimited Freshwater Towing option when I renewed my membership. 

I neglected to ask what the bill would have been so I called TowBoatUS Lake Michigan, a company that has rescue boats docked at six ports from Chicago to Manistee. Their fee is a basic hourly rate from the time they leave the dock to the time they return to the dock, starts at $185 per hour (with a two-hour minimum.) In the dark, the rate is $210 and adds more if small craft advisories are posted.

If you are lucky enough to be fishing just off the pierheads at Manistee you may get by with a less-than-two-hour tow, but don’t count on it. Once found and hooked-up, expect to be towed at five knots or so depending on conditions.

There are TowBoatUS franchises in 39 ports around the Great Lakes. Still, it’s possible there won’t be a TowBoatUS vessel near enough in all locations. Easy enough! Call the dispatcher and they will locate a private towing company or even a competitor to the rescue. You’ll have to pay upfront, but send in the receipt and you will be reimbursed. 


After a perfect weather day and a few cooperative fishes, I was headed home. Southbound on the Interstate and in heavy traffic, a car pulled next to me, slowed and started honking. I glanced over and the driver was yelling and pointing back towards my trailer. It wasn't the "hey, how are you doing" friendly greeting that occasionally happens.

I glanced in the side-view mirror and quickly noticed I could see much more of the rear trailer than normal. Immediately, I pulled over to the berm lane as far as possible but since there was a guard rail, I couldn't pull over as far as I would have liked.

With cars and trucks whizzing by only a few feet away, I snuck back to see if my instant diagnosis was correct. Yep, bearing failure.

I carry a spare wheel hub and tools with me when trailering. However, dragging the wounded trailer to the next exit or another safe area without doing permanent damage to the spindle was unlikely and I'd have been killed trying to make the repair along the road.

The same Trailer Assist option that rescued my brakeless pick-up the previous summer provided roadside service along the busy expressway. I called the 800 number, relayed the information to the BoatUS dispatcher and long story short, relatively soon a flatbed pulled up to load up the boat and trailer.

Forty-five minutes later we were unloading at my house, worse for wear, but home where better tools and cold beer resides!

fixing boat work home bearing

The BoatUS dispatcher called with perfect timing, I handed my phone to the driver and in minutes, the deal was sealed. BoatUS paid him with a credit card, I owed zero! I asked the driver what the bill would have been. Over $300. I was back on the lake the next morning.

Even if you only live a few miles from the marina, think about the most inconvenient spot for you to have bearing problems, flat tire or some other mishap. Even if you never stray far from your home port, how would you cope with a clogged fuel filter or dead battery as you drifted farther and farther away?

Don’t count on your regular boat insurance or homeowners insurance to handle your problem or pay your claims.

Rely on BoatUS. They do it every day.




I’ve been towed by the U.S. Coast Guard a couple of times but that was years ago. Luckily, I was in compliance with all safety gear and paperwork because they check! They also tow for free.

If you call the Coast Guard now, don’t expect them to automatically respond. If there’s imminent danger to your vessel or people on board, the Coast Guard will spring into action. With more and more companies getting into the boat towing and salvage business what the USCG will do is call TowBoatUS or one of the other companies and dispatch them on your behalf.

When cell service is limited, feel free to call the Coast Guard on your marine radio (call on channel 16). They will call the towing service for you and monitor your situation until it’s resolved.

- written by Mike Schoonveld

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