Safety Chains - Safe Enough? by Mike Schoonveld

Safety Chains - Safe Enough? by Mike Schoonveld

I don’t know the statistics but most days and most places I’ve been on the Great Lakes there are more fishermen riding around in boats they towed to the lake and launched than anglers out in permanently moored boats.

boat fishing great lakes

Trailered boats outnumber bigger, permanently moored boats in most of the Great Lakes. 

Almost every boat manufacturer offers trailerable models, small enough to tow, but geared for big water safety and fishability. They make sense; plus, trailerable boats are less expensive to buy and operate.

I’m sure you’ve seen dozens of articles about fishing small boats on the Great Lakes, setting them up for the Great Lakes and other facets of big water/small boats. This isn’t one of them.

This is about the equipment under the boat.

...the trailer—and specifically about the most misunderstood and often most neglected component of the trailer.

It’s not the wheels, axles and hub bearings.

They get constant attention from people like me who travel far and launch frequently. It’s not the bunks or rollers supporting the boat or the steel framework supporting the bunks, rollers, axles, couplers and other components. All are important.

It’s the safety chains, those interlinked loops of steel designed only to be used in case of a dire emergency.

Almost all boat trailers come with safety chains.

Almost all tow vehicles come with special loops in their trailer hitch assembly to hook the chains once the trailer’s coupler is attached to the ball hitch. Almost no trailers ever pop loose from the vehicle on which they are being towed so the safety chains are about as necessary as wearing a helmet while playing cribbage.

safety chains boat fishing towing

My dad would be proud of this safety chain hook-up. 

It’s highly unlikely for anyone to get struck by lightning, but it happens often enough for people to be warned frequently about lightning’s danger and how to avoid being struck.

So why aren’t there any warnings or directions about the proper use of safety chains? Is there a right or wrong way?

Does something so simple need to have directions?

Of course not. Hook the darned things up anyway you wish. Hook ‘em long, hook ‘em with the hooks facing forward or backward. Hook them back on themselves. Run your rig with the chains crossed or uncrossed. Take one of the chains off and just use one. It won’t make a whit of difference 99.999 percent of the time since your trailer is unlikely to de-couple while you are hauling down the highway.

But what if you are the .001 percent guy who should wear a football helmet to a card game?

What if your boat trailer does go loosey-goosey on the way to the lake? Are you about .001 seconds away from realizing properly adjusting and attaching your safely chains is something you shouldn’t have taken for granted? Eeeek!

Luckily, it’s not rocket science, it’s common sense, more than anything and there are only a few major considerations when considering chains.


Is the chain strong enough?

The answer is probably yes, so don’t much worry about it. If it looks like a good strong chain it will likely do the job. If you are ever in a situation where there’s enough pull on the chain to break it, you are either pulling the Queen Mary or there’s some other driving issue going on with your truck and trailer and whether they are still chained together is probably the least of your worries.


Should you hook the right chain to the right side chain loop or cross them, attaching the right chain to the left side of the trailer hitch and left chain on the right side?

Either way will keep the Queen Mary behind your vehicle if the coupler breaks off. However, if you cross the chains, there’s a chance it will form a sort of “catch basket” cradling your trailer’s tongue keeping it a few inches from the pavement. That would give you maybe seven percent better control of what is happening just behind your back bumper when the .001 chance incident occurs. Seven percent is better than zero percent.


Crossing your safety chains to make them a trailer tongue catcher only works if the chains are the correct length.

If they are too long you’ll be blowing sparks when dragging the trailer tongue down the highway whether the chains are crossed or not.

On the other hand, if the chains are too short, plan on bending or breaking something when you turn too short going either forward or backward. Have you ever checked the length of your chains? The trailer manufacturer didn’t know where on your tow vehicle the chain was going to be attached so they just bolted on an average length.

Obviously, if the chains are dragging on the pavement when you are trailering, they are too long.

If you bend or break something when turning they are too short. They can be lengthened or shortened a variety of ways if needed but you won’t know which to do unless you experiment.


Most safety chains come with an open hook to simply hang them on the chain connector loop on the vehicle.

They stay in place by a combination of magic and gravity. For people who don’t trust gravity or magic, hooks with a spring clip can be substituted which stay in place with a springy thingy. I believe as much in gravity and magic as a springy-things.

Decades ago, the first time I watched my dad hook up our boat trailer, he hooked the safety chain hook to the vehicle from underneath, the opening of the hook facing to the rear. “If you hook it the other way, it will fall off,” he explained. So for the next 20 years or so, I backward-hooked my trailers.

Then I saw a guy hook his safety hook with the opening forward. “Don’t they occasionally fall off hooked like that?” I asked.

“Never,” he said.

“Hmmm, must be magic,” I thought.

So for the next year, I hooked one side frontwards, one backward and in the end, gravity and magic worked identically. Neither side ever came unhooked and I put about 10,000 miles each year on my trailer and hit at least 10,000 potholes.

Now I hook my chain hooks frontwards because it’s easier, and like most people, I just like to do things a bit differently than my parents. 

 boat chains

Until needed, safety chains are little more than an inconvenience.


The chains connecting the trailer to the tow vehicle aren’t the only safety links protecting your boat from an accident. Most trailered boats are connected to the trailer by a set of heavy straps keeping the stern situated above the taillights and a winch strap or cable to firm the pointy end to a bow stop or roller. The chances of any of these (which look to be in good repair) failing is infinitesimal. If one of the stern tie-downs breaks, the other will pretty well hold the boat in place. If the winch strap breaks, the boat’s bow may bounce on a rough road a bit more than usual, but it’s not likely to lead to catastrophe.

So why do most boat trailers come with a safety chain to supplement the winch strap at the bow?

I suppose it would come into play if the one in a million shot of all three boat binders broke at once (wow, what a pothole), but I almost learned the hard way why the bow safety chain is important.

My present trailer came with a good set of trailer-to-vehicle chains but didn’t have a trailer to boat safety chain at the bow. There was an attachment point for a chain at the base of the bow-stop/winch support, but no chain. I didn’t think much about it since it had a strong winch strap and it was a bunk trailer.

All my previous trailers were bunk type as well and the boat would sit more or less securely on the bunks, even when backing down boat ramps with the bow’s winch strap or cable and safety chain unhooked. I didn’t have to pause at the water’s edge to unhook the safety connection. I’d just keep backing down until the boat floated free.

For over a year I did the same with my present boat. I’d unhook the bow strap and back down the ramp—easy peasy. Wet or dry, the boat set securely on the bunks at every ramp I ever used. That’s wet or dry—not frozen.

One day during the winter I found a short length of broken chain laying in a parking lot outside a hardware store. There was still a chain hook on one end of the chain and it occurred to me I’d just found the perfect length to make a safety chain for my boat and trailer. I bought a chain splice in the store and easily attached the foundling chain to the attachment point welded to the trailer.

A month or so later, I came off the lake one cold afternoon in late March, put the boat on the trailer, snugged up the winch strap, attached the safety chain and didn’t think much more about it. A cold front had blown through and the temperatures were already at the freezing mark. The next morning the temperatures were in the low 20s when I backed down the ramp.

Seconds after the trailer backed over the incline, I heard a hard clunk!

On the slick-as-ice bunks (because they were ice), the boat followed the laws of gravity and slid back on the frozen bunks. It slipped back a couple of feet, but not off the trailer, stopped by the safety chain.

Had I not found that length of chain (or finally gotten around to installing one) I’d have launched the boat at the top of the ramp. It was a lesson learned the easy way.

boat trailer fishing

Most companies are building trailerable, big-water boats.  

Are there safety chains on your boat trailer? Do you use them? Are they used and adjusted correctly?

Nine hundred, ninety-nine times out of a thousand, it won’t make a whit difference.

The trailer won’t come loose from the tow vehicle, your bunks won’t be ice-covered. The winch strap won’t break.

Then there’s that leftover once in a thousand time...

- written by Mike Schoonveld


Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.