What to do if your boat capsizes
Capsizing and falling overboard account for the majority of boating fatalities according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Keep yourself and your guests safe by learning how to prevent your boat from overturning and knowing what to do if your boat capsizes.
Reduce the risk of capsizing
- Don’t overload your boat. Balance the distribution of your passengers and gear.
- Keep the overall weight low and move on the boat’s center line in small boats.
- Turn your vessel at controlled speeds.
- Secure the anchor line to the bow of the boat, never to the stern, when anchoring.
- Don’t boat in rough water or bad weather.
Know what to do if your boat capsizes
If your boat capsizes or you fall overboard and can’t get back in, stay with the boat. Easier to see than a person in the water: an unmanned or capsized boat is itself a distress signal to passing vessels. If you are able to use any signaling devices, save at least one until you see a potential rescuer. You can also use a shiny object to attract attention.
Safety tip: Add reflective tape “stripes” to the bottom of the boat’s hull, near the centerline, to make your boat more visible to rescuers.
Once in the water, take a head count of crew and passengers and provide assistance if needed.
Few people have the strength and endurance to swim more than a short distance, especially in cold water. Shore is always farther away than it appears. Most people can hang on to a floating boat or object much longer than they can swim. Keeping more of your body out of the water helps you retain body heat.
Everyone in the water should be wearing a life jacket. If not, put them on if they’re still accessible.
If you don’t have anything to hold on to and cannot find anything to keep you afloat, improvise by using your pants. Remove your pants, tie the leg ends together, pull the zipper closed and trap air in the legs by blowing into them or waving them in the air. Then submerge the pants waist first, holding them closed. As air escapes, blow more air into the waist opening.
Stay calm, and encourage others to do the same. You may be able to turn the boat right side up, bail it, and paddle toward shore, even using hands for paddles.
If you go overboard in a river or channel, swim downstream feet first to avoid potential head injury.
Boats less than 20 feet long built since 1973 are required to have built-in floatation. This floatation should be sufficient to keep the boat upright and prevent capsizing. It must be buoyant enough to keep the head and shoulders of its crew out of the water. (Capsized sailboats often require special recovery techniques.)
If you have no other means of support, you may have to tread water or simply float. In cold water, floating can help you conserve energy and reduce your risk of hypothermia.
Stay safe on the water
Learn how to handle common emergencies while underway. Take our Emergencies on Board seminar to keep yourself and your crew safe.