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What Should You Do if Your Boat Capsizes – Things to Know

Fact checked by William Hart

what should you do if your boat capsizes

Though the water portrays magnificent views and offers priceless experiences, it is ruthless and unpredictable. Sudden waves or bad weather can capsize your boat and leave everyone on board vulnerable.

So, what should you do if your boat capsizes? What if it happens when you are far from shore?

You should quickly put on a life jacket if you haven’t worn it already and make sure all passengers wear theirs. Stay near the boat and hold on to it to stay afloat. If possible, turn the boat upright to drive people back to the shore. If not, call for emergency help using a VHF radio, whistles, or signal flares.

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What Should You Do When a Vessel Capsizes?

Capsizing often occurs in small boats like canoes and sailboats. Fortunately, small boats won’t sink. Oftentimes, you can turn the capsizing boat upright and drive to shore safely.

When your boat capsizes, what should you do?

1. Make sure everyone is wearing a life jacket


Always prioritize the survival of you and the passengers, not the boat or belongings. The first thing to do is to put on your life jacket if you haven’t worn one already. Make sure all the passengers wear theirs, too.

Eighty-five percent of fatal drownings occur because the person doesn’t wear a life jacket. Even when you are a good swimmer, don’t skip this step.

If you can’t find a life jacket, hold onto the boat to stay afloat. But pay attention not to get caught up in any loose ropes. In case the boat rolls on top of you, swim clear and let it settle.

2. Stay calm

Panic attacks are common in open water. It’s the fear of uncertainty, what lies beneath the water, the cold, currents, and tides. But you must stay calm to survive. Never try to swim to the shore, especially if you are far from it and unaware of the exact directions.

Know that most small vessels won’t sink when capsized or swamped. You should also take a headcount to ensure all passengers are afloat.

3. Stay near the boat

The boat is the largest floating object in the water, so you should stick with it. It makes you more visible to the rescuers. If possible, climb on the boat to get your body out of the cold water. Don’t let your body lose heat and freeze before rescuers reach the boat.

But if the boat drifts toward hazards, quickly swim away from it and find other buoyant objects to hold on to.

4. Turn the boat upright


If your boat is small, you and the guests can turn it upright. Firstly, grab the centerboard on the bottom of the boat. Then, slowly lean back. When the boat adopts a flat capsize position, apply all your weight to the centerboard to flip it. You can learn the whole procedure here:

When you fail to right the vessel or it is not safe to do so, call for emergency help.

5. Signal for help

If you still have access to the VHF radio, call channel 16 (the U.S. Coast Guard channel) to ask for emergency help. You must give your boat’s location (you can tell them the landmarks) and the number of people.

Otherwise, use signal flares or whistles on the life jackets. You can make yourself more visible by sitting on your capsized vessel. Exhaustion will eventually get to you, so save your energy and only use flares or blow the whistles when there are nearby rescuers.

Reduce the Risk


Surviving a capsize is more troublesome than preventing it. Here’s how you can reduce the risk.

1. Distribute the weight evenly

Never overload your boat. Remember that the allowed maximum capacity includes both people and the gear. If you equip the boat with heavy chairs or shelves, they participate in the overall weight. Loading your boat beyond its capacity can cause a capsize or swamp.

You should also distribute the gear and passengers evenly. On small boats, passengers should sit in designated areas.

2. Learn to handle your vessel appropriately

The sea is unpredictable, so you must learn to handle your vessel appropriately and skillfully. A vessel can capsize even on calm water if the driver doesn’t handle the turns well.

You should be careful when crossing coastal bars. They are shallow and might have strong currents and waves. If your boat capsizes on coastal bars, the sandbanks will damage it. The rule of thumb is not to travel along the waves. They will cause the vessel to tip sideways and capsize.

Instead, slow down your vessel, take the waves head-on or at a slight angle, and don’t turn suddenly. Memorize this as you might encounter the question “which of the following actions could help to prevent capsizing?” in your boater exam.

3. Prepare a grab bag

Prepare a grab bag with vital safety equipment so you can access what you need in case of an emergency. The essentials of a grab bag include:

Many manufacturers equip a grab bag on their boats, so you might already have one on board. You can add other personal items as needed and place the bag in an easy-to-reach area. Remember to access and update your bag regularly to ensure everything is in good working order.

How to Survive in Cold Water

If your boat capsizes in cold water, you must take further steps besides wearing life jackets and staying near the boat. Try to prevent hypothermia and conserve your body heat with the following methods.

  • Get your body out of the water by climbing onto the capsized boat. Then, form a heat escape-lessening position, crossing your arms tightly around your chest and bending your knees close to them.
  • If you are not alone, huddle with the others. Place the sides of everyone’s chests close together, wrap the arms around the backs, and intertwin the legs.
  • Wrap the foil blanket in your grab bag around to maintain body heat. You can also wear multiple layers of clothing.
  • If you tackle the sea in cold weather, consider equipping yourself with one of the following items: a full nose-to-toes PFD, anti-exposure work suits, dry suits, wet suits, or immersion suits.


Single-handed dinghies and small vessels are prone to capsizing. But as long as you stay calm and follow the procedure, you will get to shore safely.

To wrap up, what should you do if your boat capsizes? Always wear your life jacket, stay close to the boat, flip it over if possible, and pull out your grab bag to call for emergency help.

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