Girding is a thing

Girding happens when a boat being towed overtakes the boat towing it and can potentially cause a capsize. Here, an employee of Marston’s Marina in Saco, Maine uses their workboat to tow a customer to the dock. Photo by Randy Randall

July 2022

By Randy Randall

So, what is girding? Funny you should ask. Maybe some kind of medieval torture or that feeling you get in your stomach when the long sea swells go on forever? Well, it’s none of those. Girding (sometimes called tripping) describes a marine accident that could happen to you.

We’ve written before about boaters helping each other by offering a friendly tow back to the marina or launch ramp. And we’ve mentioned how towing a boat can be dangerous with the enormous strains imparted to the ropes and cleats. Girding is when the towed vessel, such as a gravel barge, gets ahead of the tugboat. That is when the “towee” goes faster than the “tower.” It happens fast, and if you don’t react quickly, the vessel being towed will pull the tugboat over, with disastrous results.

There are some alarming videos on the internet that show a small tugboat towing a barge being run down or pulled over. It almost happened to us one day here at the marina. Our work skiff is 11-feet long, has a 15HP motor, and on occasion, we’ll help a customer by towing his disabled boat around to the launch ramp. In this case, we were shifting a sailboat from one mooring to another – something like a Cape Dory 25 with a deep keel – a rather heavy boat but slippery like a fish.

We began towing with what we thought was a good length for the tow rope. As we swung out into the middle of the river, we found we had an outgoing tide and the river current shoving the Cape Dory downriver at a good clip. We didn’t realize at first just how fast the sailboat was going and catching up to us. Then we felt the towline tug the skiff sideways. We knew immediately we were at risk for girding. Our answer was to gun the motor.

We applied all the power we had, tightened the towline, and pulled the bow of the sailboat sideways. We let the Cape Dory swing around in the river and then towed it upstream into the current. We regained control of our tow and hauled it safely to its home mooring. But it was a close call. If we hadn’t recognized the danger as soon as we did, the much heavier boat would have probably pulled us over.

Girding can happen even with small craft and recreational boats. There are some guidelines for minimizing the risk. An obvious one is don’t volunteer to tow a boat much bigger than you are. Politely refuse, render any other assistance that might be needed, and have them call for help. If the two boats are roughly equal in size and weight, rig a longer towline that will leave room to maneuver if the towed boat should get out of control.

Having a deckhand stand by with a sharp knife is also a good idea. Just in case the towed boat tries to run you down or roll you over, he can cut the rope. And as with all such maneuvers on the water – go slow. Keep the towline tight, of course, and stay in control. Around the marina, we try to do a “hip tow” whenever possible. That’s when you use ropes and fenders to tie the tugboat to the stern quarter of the DIW boat. With this arrangement, there’s no way the disabled boat could run you over, and steering is more responsive. I will admit a few more horsepower would be nice sometimes, but so far, we’ve been careful and generally had good luck helping people. So now you know. Girding is a real danger and as much as you might want to help another boater, consider the circumstances and the possible risks before picking up his towline.

Frequent contributor, correspondent and friend. Randy Randall is co-owner of Marston’s Marina in Saco, Maine, and a dreamer and waterman of the first order.