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Capsized boat: what you should do, how to prevent it, for small and large boats

Goals for this article on capsizing boat

  1. What to do if you capsize with your boat. We define different use cases depending on boat size, boat type, weather, distance from shore, and boat conditions after capsizing.
  2. How to prevent capsizing from happening. We will give you some best practices, we talk about weather conditions, navigation, boat speed, boat load, weight distribution, and safety. 
  3. Recommend some safety gear that is always good to have on the boat or with you in case of a capsizing.
Part
1

What should you do if your boat capsizes

General Procedure for Capsizing

1/ Stay Calm: don't panic

The first few moments after your boat capsizes are critical. You should be in the right headspace to make good decisions and conserve energy.

2/ Take care of yourself first

Make sure you are uninjured, secure your lifejacket and make sure you can stay afloat before attempting to help others.

3/ Do a headcount

Account for everyone on the boat before the crash. If they are not within sight, yell their name until you locate them.

4/ Try to right the boat

If you can flip the boat back over and climb back in, this is the best option.

5/ Stay near the boat

If the boat remains capsized, stay near it and wait for help. It is much easier for rescuers to find a capsized boat than for individual people in the water.

6/ Climb on the boat

You and your crew should climb on the hull of the boat; it will be easier to see you. Climbing in the hull can get you out of cold water and increase your chances of survival. 

7/ Signal for help

Use your personal locator beacon (PLB), marine radio or whistle or anything you have to signal for help.

What Not to do if your boat capsizes 

  1. Never swim away from the boat if it is afloat it is much harder to find or rescue some away from the capsized boat.
  2. Never split up: Stay together with the people on the boat so you can all be rescued at once
  3. Never take off your life jacket.

What to do when capsizing depends on your boat type

Large boats

You should not try to right a large vessel that has capsized as it will be too heavy and waste your energy. You should climb on the boat's hull if it is floating and conserve energy.

Small boats

Small boats typically remain afloat after capsizing and should be able to be righted. If you can flip the vessel back over, make sure it is still sea-worthy before entering it. 

Jet Skis

If your jet ski has been flipped or capsized and the engine is still running, turn the engine off to reduce the chances of water getting sucked in through the air intake. If the jet ski is floating, flip it back over in the direction that allows the exhaust to hit the water last. 

Sailboats

When a sailboat tips over, it is called capsizing or keeling over. Sailboats are often ballasted, making them very hard to overturn or stay capsized. Typically, you can right a sailboat by putting your weight on the daggerboard. 

Multi Hulls

Once a multi-hulled boat has capsized, it will not be possible to right it. You should remain near the boat if it is still afloat and make sure it does not float away. Climb on one of the hulls and wait for help.

What if the boat is upside down, floats away, or sinks?

Upside down boat

If your boat remains afloat or is still floating but is upside down, you can try to right it. If your boat has a daggerboard or keel, such as a small sailboat, you can use your weight to flip it back over. This may not be possible on a larger yacht or powerboat, and it is best to get on the hull, conserve energy, and begin signaling for help. 

Floats away

Try to hold on to your boat so it does not float away; this is your best chance for rescue. Although if it does float away, do not panic and make sure everyone is wearing a life jacket and is appropriately secured. If you're not wearing a PFD, find one and put it on or look around for any loose floating objects. Do not attempt to swim to shore. You can signal for help using whistles, marine radios, or personal locator beacons. 

Sinks

If your boat capsizes and sinks, you should remain calm. First, account for everyone and make sure everyone is wearing a PFD or holding on to a floating object if they do not have a life jacket. Stick together with your crew and conserve energy, and if it is possible, signal for help. Once you are safe and back onshore, report the location of the sunk boat to the coast guard

Capsizing procedures depend on the weather and distance from shore

Calm

What should you do if the weather is calm and you capsize your boat? Fair weather will make it easier to stay safe and get rescued, but the procedure remains the same.

Windy

So, how windy is too windy for boating? It depends on:

  • the size of your boat;
  • the size of the waves; and
  • the body of water you are in.

Generally, wind speeds over 20 knots (23 mph) are too windy for boating. At this wind speed, almost all-size boats will be greatly affected, and smaller boats may even be in danger of capsizing. If your boat does capsize in high winds, it can be hazardous and easy for your boat to float away. Keep your PFD on and stay close to the boat if it is still afloat.

Current

Oceanic currents describe the movement of water from one location to another. Currents are generally measured in meters per second or knots. If your boat is capsized in moving water, you will have less time to make sure you account for everyone and stop your boat from floating away. Ensure you are well prepared if boating in areas with high currents.

Distance from shore

The average person would struggle to swim even 1 mile. This could be as long as 50 minutes of swimming in open water if there is little current or wind. Unless you are very close to shore, it is not recommended you swim away from your capsized boat if it remains afloat. 

Part
2

Best practices to prevent a boat from capsizing

Your position on the boat

You should stay low and centered in your boat and always maintain three contact points when moving on your boat.

Weather

Check the weather. Poor weather conditions result in high waves or swells that will lead you to capsize. Your boat won't move as smoothly in choppy water as in calm water. Make sure to slow down during bad weather or stay on shore!

Navigation

Proper direction of the boat compared to waves.

  • Waves play a significant role in how you will operate your boat.
  •  Improperly using your vessel during certain waves can lead to capsizing
  • Point the as close as possible to the direction of the waves
  • Never let waves hit the side of your boat.
  • Larger boats can handle bigger waves.
  • You should watch for other boats and wakes. Always take waves head-on from the bow.
  • Never tie the anchor to the stern of your boat. This increases the weight at the back of your craft and could cause your boat to capsize.

How to safely turn your boat to avoid capsizing

1/ Look

Look at the water you are turning into and make sure it is clear of boats and debris that could increase your chance of capsizing. You want your boat to remain afloat! 

2/ Trim

The boat/engine needs to be trimmed down a bit from where it was before the turn.

3/ Throttle

You should let off the throttle before the turn. Do not turn it down too much as this risks upsetting the balance but turn it down enough to lower the bow.

4/ Turn

Turn the boat in a steady motion. Turns will slow your boat down so, so as you turn, gently increase the throttle so that you maintain a constant bow angle. When you exit your turn and straighten the wheel, add more gas to lift the bow and accelerate away.

Weight and load on board

Proper Weight distribution

The center of gravity and buoyancy of most planing hull boats is 60 to 65 percent behind the bow. You want to center all weight around this point to maintain the center of a balance. There should be equal weight on both the left and right of the boat, so it sits flat. You can adjust the balance of the boat further by trimming the engine. 

Do not overload your boat, or it could capsize!

The first you want to look at is the boat's capacity plate. This capacity plate has information regarding safe maximums for your boat. Usually, the following information is located on the plate:

  • maximum number of passengers;
  • maximum weight of passengers;
  • the maximum combined weight of passengers, gear and motors; and
  • top horsepower motor the boat is rated for.

These guidelines take into account the presence of fair weather. Additionally, the information on the capacity plate may change depending on the type of boat in question.

Estimating a safe passenger load

The rule of thumb for determining the maximum number of passengers for the smaller craft is to multiply your vessel's length (ft) by width (ft) and divide by 15 (L x W / 15).

Safety practices

Attach the engine cut-off switch lanyard to your wrist, clothes, or PFD.

Federal boating safety requirements are an excellent place to look for safety information. Still, you'll also want to consider additional items that should be on board your boat at all times:

View the guide to federal boating regulations for more information, but consider that additional precautions may be needed. You should always wear a PFD when on a boat and appropriate clothing to stay warm if you fall in the water, such as a survival suit if water is cold. Additionally, you should always have a kill switch attached to your wrist if you fall overboard.

Carry a First Aid kit

Stay up to date with your first aid knowledge through the American Red Cross first aid/CPR course. You should also have a first aid kit aboard your boat if you capsize. You might need it.

Part
3

Things to have when capsizing

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Part 
4

Top questions on capsizing

What should I do if my boat capsizes?

1/ Accept the situation.

Easy to say but hard to do. Panic often leads to poor decision making so try to stay calm

2/ Check for crew safety/condition.

Are the people onboard injured? Is anyone missing?

3/ Keep warm and stay afloat.

Keep your clothes on. Put a lifejacket on and make sure your crew are doing the same. Climb onto the part of the boat still floating. Huddle with other people.

4/ Keep close to the boat.

Current and wind could cause you to get separated from your boat, so stay close, and hold on to it. Warning: do not attach, or tie yourself to the boat as it may sink.

5/ If you cannot recover from the capsizing, signal distress.

Use your distress signals (audio, visual, electronic). For consumable signals, don’t use them all at once, you don’t know how long you could be stuck. 

6/ Capsize recovery attempt (much easier with smaller boats, impossible on larger boats)

  • Sailboat: release all sail lines. You don’t want the boat to leave without you. Then, orient the bow towards the wind to make sure that the boat doesn’t gain speed once up.
  • Boats with a centerboard: apply your bodyweight to the end of the centerboard in order to flip the boat back up.
  • Boats without a centreboard: tie a line to one side of the boat (portside or starboard), stand on the opposite side holding the line, then lean backwards. Your body weight applied correctly to the edge will flip the boat back up.

7/ Re-entering the boat and emptying the water.

  • Small boats: people should climb aboard from different sides to prevent more water from getting in.
  • Sailboats: do not use sail lines to help yourself back up, this could lead to the tightening of some sail and your boat speeding up.
  • Larger boats (sail or motor): the easiest way back onto the boat is often from the stern (the back), near the engine (make sure it is off before approaching it).

What not to do if my boat capsizes?

  • Do not take off your clothes; you should try to stay as warm as possible.
  • Do not tie yourself to the boat; you could risk sinking with your boat.
  • Do not remove your lifejacket or PFD. Even if you can swim, you want to conserve your energy as much as possible.
  • Do not use all your signaling devices at once. It is often recommended to signal distress every 30 min or hour. Longer intervals are recommended in areas with low frequency. The general rule is to signal more often in areas where there are more boats.
  • Do not hold sail lines when trying to climb back up; this could increase your boat speed before you are back in. 
  • Do not attempt a capsize recovery if the bow of your boat is not facing the wind. Same things for waves, do not attempt a capsize recovery if the bow of your boat is not facing the waves.

What causes a boat to capsize?

The weather is too rough for your boat size

A larger wave could cause the captain to be caught off guard by.

Improper sail rigging

 if it is too windy, and you are rigged for a lighter wind, you will for sure capsize.

An overloaded boat

You should know the weight limit and people limit of your boat and keep a margin of error, especially when the weather is rough. If you don’t know the limit, there should be a capacity plate somewhere on your boat.

Improper weight balance

The weight on your boat should be placed evenly throughout your boat so that the buoyancy (why things float) is evenly distributed across the boat as well.

Leaks 

It sounds stupid but it is true. Check that your boat does not have a leak or that all drain plugs are closed for example. Water will add a tremendous amount of weight in your boat, resulting in capsizing.

Where can I find the capacity plate?

The capacity plate is normally located beside the helm or within view of the main control station. Alternatively it could be near the transom around the stern of the vessel.

If your boat has capsized, when is it appropriate to swim to shore?

The first thing to do is to understand if there is a risk to be hit by a boat. Then, if you find yourself 100m (300ft) from shore, you can leave the craft and aim for shore. Once there, reach out for assistance immediately.

Part 
5

Additional resources on capsizing and safety