What to do when your boat has capsized

What should you do if your boat capsizes?

Tips to help you avoid capsizing

Being properly prepared in case your boat capsizes

What to do when your boat has capsized

For most people who enjoy boating, regardless of experience level, the idea of capsizing is a frightening one. And yet, sticking our heads in the sand and pretending it's not a risk, or isn't going to happen, is neither wise nor responsible. While applying good seamanship will limit the possibility of a capsize happening, there are situations where it may be outside our control and in such instances, knowledge and sufficient planning may just be the difference between life and death.

So what should you do if you find yourself in this situation to minimise damage and keep everyone, including yourself, as safe as possible? We've put together a list of tips which cover proper planning, both in order to avoid capsizing in the first place and also so you are prepared in the event it does happen, as well as step-by-step instructions you should follow in the event the worst should happen.

Tips to help you avoid capsizing

Don't Overload the Boat

One of the cardinal rules of boating is not to overload the boat. This means that you should not carry too much weight onboard or in any one concentrated area. An overloaded boat is much more at risk of capsizing so it's best to do your due diligence beforehand to ensure you understand the boat you are going out on and its limitations.

Distribute boat contents evenly for greater stability

Distribute the boat's contents evenly throughout the vessel to create greater stability and reduce the chance of the boat flipping over. This can be done by putting heavier items at the bottom of the boat and lighter items on top as well as ensuring they are evenly spread out from front to back and port to starboard.

Turn the boat at a controlled speed(s)

If possible avoid tacking or jibing suddenly. If you do it's possible that your passengers won't be prepared to maneover which could lead to a loss of control. Take broader turns where possible and ensure the crew is fully aware of what you're doing.

Never anchor from the stern

When you drop your anchor from the stern of your boat, the chain attached to the anchor can cause your boat to swing into the wind and it may roll over and capsize as a result. Even if your boat doesn't capsize the anchor can pull the stern of your boat into the water and cause water to seep into it (this is known as swamping).

Be alert for the wake and waves of other boats

When you are out on the open water, be aware of the wake and waves created by other vessels. Boat wake and waves can be dangerous, especially if you are not expecting them. Be sure to keep a safe distance, secure items properly before getting underway and be prepared for "chop" caused by other vessels.

Monitor the forecast before heading out to be aware of changing sea conditions

Check the weather conditions before you set out such as the wind and tide schedule and look ahead to see how the conditions are expected to change over the course of the day. Make sure you are familiar with the route you are taking and do your best to be aware of your surroundings.

Wear appropriate clothing and footwear and remember - if you are in doubt, don't go out!

Life Jackets at hand

Being properly prepared in case your boat capsizes

Ensure the correct safety equipment is on board

  • Ensure the boat is in good condition before you set sail and make sure you are familiar with the boat's capabilities
  • Be sure to have enough fuel, drinking water, and food for the journey
  • Double-check that you have a life jacket for each person on board
  • Pack a first aid kit and check beforehand in case any items need replacing or topping up.
  • Have a flare gun and flares to go with it.
  • Ensure you have a working VHF radio
  • Always carry up-to-date charts
  • Make sure you have a working fire extinguisher onboard

Pro tip: Keep an accessible grab bag on board with things like flares, your first aid kit and a registered Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) and passports. This is essential should you need to exit in a hurry.

capsized boats - people on hull

What to do when your boat has capsized

Make sure everyone is accounted for

The first thing you should do after your boat has capsized is perform a quick head count and make sure everyone is together. Once you have ensured no one is missing overboard begin to give clear instructions.

Use the boat for support

All crew, including yourself, should board the boat or at least get as much of their body out of the water as possible to avoid wasting energy and getting hypothermia. Heat is lost much more quickly through water than the air and treading water will cause the body to use valuable energy supplies.  

Signal for help

Once you have ensured all passengers are together and everyone is at least partially out of the water you can then call for help. If you have access to your VHF send out a Mayday distress call. If your  EPIRB is kept in a bag and not set to automatically activate you should trigger it immediately.

Attempt to right the boat

Depending on the size of the vessel it may be possible to right it yourself. If you are sailing a dinghy turn the boat so that the Mast is downwind or the bow is pointed into the Wind. The first person should stand on the centerboard, while the second crew member keeps the boat into the Wind. From the Stern, the first person then boards the boat and helps the other crew member onboard. If you are on a dinghy ensure the main and jib sheet is eased so your boat doesn't take off as soon as you right it.

Do not panic and swim away from the vessel!

Whatever happens, it is really important you do not attempt to swim away from the boat unless you are drifting towards something hazardous. A ship is a much bigger object and provides better floatation which is therefore much easier to find for a rescue team. In addition, as long as it floats you can hold on to it and preserve energy. If anyone tries to move away from the boat or the group communicate this information to them calmly but firmly.

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