Trailering a Pearson Triton Coast to Coast

By James Baldwin

A young cowboy beat and pulled my flattened truck tire from its rim with iron tongs as if wrestling a steer for branding. Here, in an open-sided truck repair shop along Texas Interstate 10, I began to wonder if the hazards of a cross-country road trip were worth the savings of not hiring a professional boat hauler.

My wife and I had spent months laboring over our customer's 1965 Pearson Triton sailboat to finish dozens of jobs on his must-have list. Eventually, this bare and neglected old boat was transformed into a true classic beauty, ready to sail across oceans (or make a comfortable land cruiser to cross the continent for that matter). The problem was that the owner lived in California and his new boat was still in Georgia. Commercial boat haulers would charge $5,000 or more to move the boat, and besides, I wanted to see the results of all our work by sailing the boat once it got to California.

At the first mention of the possibility of hauling the boat myself, my wife, overflowing with cautious wisdom, advised: "Don't do it. It's too far and dangerous. You might have an accident or truck breakdown. And the gas and hotel bills will be too much."

I was reminded of the story of the Irish traveler who asked a country farmer the quickest way to Dublin. His reply: "I would'na start from here."

I had trailered my own Pearson Triton, Atom, several times by trailer short distances, as well as taking other small boats up to a thousand miles along the US eastern seaboard and to and from the Great Lakes to coastal Georgia. But this was my first time to tackle a 2,500 mile journey from one end of the continent to the other and then back again. Also, there was an element of risk and possibility of financial ruin: picture an accident where this beautifully fitted out and irreplaceable yacht gets spilled in a thousand pieces all over the highway. So the owner bought insurance and we took our chances on the rest.

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The trip was made more appealing (and less expensive) because I decided to live aboard the boat at truck stops along the way. It was an odd sensation at first to be towing my temporary home behind me across the Gulf Coast's bayou swamps, then western deserts, and then up the mountains while living aboard at night parked between big trucks as they rumbled in and out at all hours. Since the boat was set up for living aboard at anchor, it seemed only natural to stay aboard on the cross-country journey. Even though this land cruising was sometimes awkward, there were similarities to life afloat. I was able to shower sitting in the cockpit footwell under a solar shower bag, cook my dinner on the kerosene stove in the galley and sleep on the comfortable bunk each night.

My towing rig consisted of my 2003 Ford F250 pickup truck with gas-guzzling V-10 engine and a new tandem axle Sail-Trailer rated for boats up to 10,000 lbs. When I began moving boats of this size several years ago I first needed to upgrade the standard hitch assembly to Class V, which is rated for 15,000 lbs load and 1,500 lbs tongue weight. I purchased the hitch online for $230 plus shipping and installed it myself.

A tongue weight scale ensured I had the recommended 10% of gross trailer load on the tongue, measured when I loaded this Triton onto our new trailer at our local boat yard's travel lift. In this case that was about 1,000 lbs. The 2,000 lb rated Sherline scale was another item bought online for $100 and it has proved useful time and again to take the guesswork out of correct boat placement on the trailer.

My ever-cautious wife insisted I take the truck in for an oil change and tune-up before the big trip – an ordeal that cost me another $1,200 when they uncovered some issues on the truck that needed fixing. Then she recommended I buy the Garmin Nuvi 1450 Navigator since I would be traveling this trip solo while my usual navigator was staying home this time to keep the business running and take care of the dog and house. There went another $120 plus accessories. Another concern was that in the spring of 2012 gas prices were going up daily. Some blamed it on Iranian troubles, but I suspected the speculators knew I was about to buy hundreds of gallons of this liquid gold! The trip was getting pricey before I even got underway.

One morning in March I checked the trailer screw pads and the boat's hold-down straps for tightness, inflated my eight 10 ply tires and two spares to 75 psi, and trundled off down the road. She towed like a dream through the flat highways of Georgia and the gentle hills on I-10 W across Florida's panhandle and then over the long flat bridges of the bayou swamps of the Gulf Coast. Light traffic and a tailwind – this was starting out like a relaxing vacation. I stopped every hour or so to check and sometimes retighten the screw pads and straps. To prevent violent flapping of the hold-down straps at highway-speed winds I had twisted the straps several times before connecting them.

If I wasn't stopping at rest stops I was pulling into a gas station every few hours. Driving at 60 mph was relatively efficient but even so, this rig has an insatiable demand for gas and I preferred not to let her gauge get below a quarter tank. By using overdrive in the flat country and keeping my speed down I was able to get almost 10 mpg and average about nine for the entire outbound trip.

I planned an easy five-day trip as opposed to an exhausting four-day slog. That first day at sunset I pulled somewhat road-weary into a truck stop near Hammond, Louisiana. I backed in between a truck and the curb where I hoped not to be in anyone's way. My neighbor in the truck leaned out the window and told me we'd be fine where we are for the night and that he'd be pulling out early. "The restaurant here isn't too bad and the showers inside are $9," he added as I pulled my stepladder from the back of the pickup and climbed up to the boat. Once aboard I used a rope to pull the ladder up after me. Here I felt as impregnable as within castle walls. After a solar bag shower seated in the cockpit footwell I moved inside and cooked a hot meal on the kerosene stove. That night the buzzing mozzies around my ears reminded me that I'd forgotten to bring any screens for the hatches.

On day two I rolled into Texas. As I enjoyed the scenery of purple and yellow wildflowers along the road I gradually felt the back end of the truck swaying more and more as if there was a building cross-wind rocking the boat. I searched the landscape for signs of wind. Finally a flag on its pole confirmed that there was little wind and I had other troubles.

Pulling off at the next exit I saw my right rear tire was nearly flat by a nail puncture. I pulled out the jack and lug wrench. The nut was tight. I pulled with all my strength until I found myself suddenly laying on my back with the shattered wrench on top of me. In two seconds I realized that's one flat tire I won't be changing by myself. Another fortunate piece of advice from my wife was to bring along a 12 volt mini-air compressor. In 20 minutes that tire was inflated enough to carry me a mile down the road to that cowboy's truck repair shop. Forty-five minutes and $40 later I was back on the road with a patch on my tire and Houston in my sights ahead. The cowboy had warned me Houston traffic would be a bit thick this time of the afternoon, but we jostled and juggled our way through the sometimes stop and go traffic in just over an hour.

Now, you don't just sail through Texas in a day, flat tires or not. The changing scenery and time zones made it feel a country on its own. We passed roadside oil rigs next to the towering columns of wind turbines dotting the edges of the plateau country like Apache warriors overlooking a wagon-train. Texas likes to do grand things, like having the world's largest array of wind turbines. The scrub brush and dry, dusty land held little to support the remains of the abandoned-looking ranches scattered about. The speed limit rose to 80 mph as if a subtle warning to get the hell outta here before your radiator bursts and the buzzards pick your bones. The end of another 500-odd mile day brought me to another truck stop some thirty miles east of San Antonio.

Day three was still all about Texas. It got bleaker and more surprising at the same time. The rivers I passed over held nothing but rocks and dust. In the near-far distance of the plateaus a lone tractor plowed the sand, stirring up a dust devil pulled high by wind currents. A freight train paralleled the highway and nearly overtook me. Collections of crumbling brick shacks marked the little towns of Van Horn and Sierra Blanca standing in exaggerated importance among the emptiness. Then my eyes latched onto a narrow strip of muddy water – the Rio Grande and Mexico just beyond.

I pulled into a crowded truck stop outside El Paso. Here I spent a cold night listening to the motors rumble and air lines hiss like dragon snorts. Once I awoke to the noise of a truck parking next to me and was reminded of being at sea on a stormy night, but without the motion.

As I passed through the tight-packed streets and old and new buildings of El Paso I looked down on the Rio Grande beyond "The Wall" and saw a couple of Mexican children standing right in the middle of its narrow width. It was only ankle deep! That meager ditch is enough to pass for a Grande river in this parched country.

Near Las Cruces, New Mexico I crossed over the Rio Grande, still barely ankle deep as the dry air and soil sucked the life from it and everything else here. Brief splashes of green agriculture and larger groves of dead-looking pecan trees dotted the wasteland. All traffic was stopped here for Border Patrol inspection by nodding agents and sniffing dogs. Apparently New Mexico also felt Texas was a different country and needed to keep its border secure. Signs welcomed us to this new country with "Dust storms next 45 miles – Zero visibility possible - Do not stop – Beware of prisoners, don't pick up hitchhikers." They might also have said, "Don't pass any gas stations."

There was light traffic going west, sometimes no other vehicles were visible clear to the horizon. Army convoys headed east as I crossed the Continental Divide at 4,500 feet elevation. Actually, the Divide was a barely noticeable hump in the mesa that my truck took in its stride, never breaking out of overdrive.

Driving 60 mph makes for safe and easy driving since you seldom need to pull out and pass other traffic and are able to keep a long stopping distance between yourself and vehicles ahead while not going so slow that you risk being rear-ended. On downhill runs in light traffic I did let her build up to 70 mph and slowed to 45 going up in the hope I was saving some gas or at least transmission wear. Even out here in desert country far from the coast, our little boat got admiring glances and twice men came up to me at gas stations and said: "Is that a Pearson Triton? Sure looks pretty."

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Somewhere amidst the balancing boulders and saguaro cactus around Gila Bend, Arizona, the truck began jumping like a bucking horse. At the next exit I found that patched tire I drove several miles on half-flat was now unraveling its inner belts. The local tire shop was closed until morning so I pulled into the near-empty truck stop and enjoyed the desert evening for a while in the cockpit before sleep.

In the early morning $260 got me back on the road with a new 10 ply tire. I had been surprised out here in the western deserts to see several towns seemingly comprised mostly of RV parks. What the attractions were I didn't have time to find out. Then in a scene from an Arabian movie, somewhere in the Arizona desert my eyes feasted upon a mini oasis. Amidst the earth-toned sand and scrub brush popped up a splash of verdant green date trees clustered around a house next to an exit marked "Oasis." Another strange sight caught me some thirty miles east of Yuma – acres and acres of cattle stood tightly packed behind fences outside a slaughterhouse. The stench in the air could gag even a non-vegetarian.

At the California state line we stopped for inspection. "Is this a new boat?" the officer asked me. I thought she was giving us a compliment, but when I told her it wasn't, her face frowned as she pulled on surgical gloves and walked around the boat sticking her latex fingers in every hole and even giving the rudder a good shake. No dirty holes or loose rudders permitted in California apparently. She even spun the propeller on the outboard motor. Maybe she was in training to become a TSA screener. I know I've had less intrusive doctor exams and felt like telling her: "I feel so violated," but thought she might not appreciate the humor.

"What type paint do you have on the bottom?" she asked.

"What type paint does California prefer?" I asked back. She waved us on and a few miles later I stopped so another Border Patrol dog could sniff us again.

Past a cement-lined canal filled with precious water, dune buggies raced up giant sand dunes. Later a sign announced we dipped below sea level. An ominous-looking mountain range rose in the distance ahead. At last, our final hurdle before reaching the Pacific. Nothing but bare sand made the previous deserts appear lush. Monstrous wind turbines on the 4,000-foot high ridge of Tecate Divide whirled as we climbed the mountains against strong headwinds.

Heading down the other side of the mountains the 10,000 lbs of boat and trailer propelled us faster and faster until I worried about the brakes failing. Probably there was no problem, but to keep at least the truck brakes in reserve, I used the manual override to repeatedly and gradually apply brakes to only the trailer and all went well.

Descending into the suburbs of San Diego we entered a torrent of traffic and lane changes as the Navigator kept up a steady stream of instructions to find the shortest route 60 miles up the coast to Dana Point. Until now the Navigator's metallic female voice had often annoyed me as every time I pulled into a rest stop or exited to get gas, she rudely interrupted by insisting, "TURN BACK NOW," or some such nonsense, finally giving up with a resigned, "Recalculating." Despite her bad habits, changing roads on the unfamiliar busy highways gave me a deep appreciation for her tireless insistence on sticking to the correct route.

How long can it be, I wondered, before sailors demand similar voice navigators on board telling us when we are off course to "Tack Now." Or when heeled excessively: "Reef, you silly bugger!" Or as bilge water levels rise: "Pump Faster!" If the water gets too high it can even tell us to "Abandon Ship, you bloody fool!"

My truck gas gauge let me know she needed another long draught of $5 per gallon California gas so I pulled into the nearest station and found out too late the little city gas stations were not so spacious as the truck stops I had gotten used to. I pulled forward as far as I could until my front bumper was nearly touching the glass door of the building and still our mast overhung the street. Getting out again required some hairy, traffic stopping maneuvers.

At last, my first site of our destination at Dana Point – surfers catching waves across the street from the shipyard. On Monday morning we launched the boat for her first taste of Pacific saltwater, then stepped the mast and moved her to her new slip. Over a thousand boats crowded into the tight slips at this enormous marina. Space is at such a premium the dock master comes by with a tape measure to check any overhanging equipment on your boat. One of our neighbors said he had to temporarily unbolt his anchor roller to pass inspection. Because of the tight turning radius between docks, the side thrust provided by swiveling our outboard motor in its well locker proved a successful modification to the original Atomic 4 inboard gas engine.

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After a couple pleasant days of test sails off Dana Point checking all the new equipment, I turned back for home with the empty rig. The trip home was made more relaxed by not having an overhanging 8,000 lb burden on my back. Gas mileage improved to almost 12 mpg and I even passed a few familiar gas stations without stopping. Sweet sights I recall were of heading east as the sunset behind me bathed the mountains of Arizona blood-red while a full moon rose ahead. Recent rains had swollen the Rio Grande to ten times its previous size. In west Texas a man ran doggedly east on a service road paralleling I-10 carrying an unfurled American flag. Behind him drove a van marked "Patriot Run Across America." I read later this was ultra distance runner John Pyle hotfooting from San Francisco to Key West, FL to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project.

In the middle of the dead-straight desert highway I passed an SUV flipped on its back in the median, luggage strewn everywhere, and an ambulance collecting the injured. With no other cause likely in this light traffic and good visibility, I guessed the driver fell asleep at the wheel – easy to do after a long day in the seemingly endless desert.

I knew that many of the cultural differences of the south and southwestern states have blended into standard American fast-food, strip mall and interstate highway culture, so I was relieved to see the few regional differences that are still recognizable. While audio books and satellite radio can easily fill the hours of a trucker's boredom, I enjoyed tuning in and out of the local FM radio stations, from Mexican music to the raucous revival stories of the black preachers on Sunday. Near Baton Rouge the radio announcer spoke in that mellifluous Cajun Creole, introducing the lively and mournful ballads of accordions and fiddles.

A day after detouring in Florida to pick up a new customer's Alberg 30, I arrived back home in Brunswick, GA. On this particular trip my expenses came to about 50 cents per mile, not counting the wear and tear on the truck. I saved some money avoiding motels on the outbound trip. Aside from campgrounds and RV parks, truck stops can be a good option for overnighting aboard. Just remember to bring your earplugs.

Brief video of the trip west

Sources:

Sail-Trailers at: http://www.sailtrailers.com/

Hitch assemblies and tongue weight scale at: http://www.etrailer.com/