What Should You Do First When A Vessel Capsizes?

What Should You Do First When A Vessel Capsizes?

Nothing quite beats being out on the open water. The freedom, the views, the fresh air… It’s a dream. Although water-based activities are usually safe and fun, it’s always wise to be prepared for the unexpected.

If you found yourself in an emergency situation on the water, would you know what to do? Although it’s not common for boats to capsize, it happens. If you’re on board when catastrophe strikes, you need to know exactly what to do and be prepared to act fast.

That’s why, in this article, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about navigating this hypothetical situation, so you can get yourself and your crew to safety.

Why Do Boats Capsize?

Boats tend to capsize when they become unstable, and there are three primary causes of vessel instability, including:

  • Unbalanced weight
  • Leaks
  • Too much equipment on board

Bad weather can also cause boats to capsize; high winds and choppy seas make for unstable conditions that can cause the boat to rock, fill with water, and in worse case, capsize.

What Boats Are Most Likely To Capsize?

Some vessels are more likely to capsize than others. Small boats, such as dinghies, are more likely to capsize than larger boats. Those anywhere between the 15 and 20-foot range are also more susceptible to capsize, especially if they’re overloaded.

What To Do If Your Boat Capsizes?

If your boat capsizes, here’s exactly what you should do to keep yourself and your crew safe:

Assess Everyone’s Safety

Your first course of action should be to check if everyone on board is safe and uninjured. Take note of yourself, and the people around you, and check for injuries.

Check Lifejackets

If you hadn’t put on a lifejacket before the boat capsized, now is the time to grab the nearest available jacket. If there wasn’t a spare one on board, stay close to someone else who is wearing a life jacket and can support your weight.

If there’s a spare life jacket in the water but you can’t put it on, hold on to it and encourage other passengers to do the same.

Check Numbers

Once you’ve established that no one is injured, you’ll need to check numbers. Do a headcount and check that everyone who was on board the vessel is currently surrounding you.

Stay With Your Boat

Stay With Your Boat

The most important thing you can do is to stay with your vessel if it’s still floating. This will increase your chances of being spotted by the coast guard or a rescue crew, and it will give you something stable to hold on to and keep you afloat.

If your craft is still floating and you’re wearing a life jacket, try to climb on top of the boat to reduce your exposure to cold water, and avoid cold water shock.

If you make it on top of your craft and you’re close to shore, you can try and use your hand or feet as paddles to sidestroke your way to the shore.

Important note: If you find yourself in fast-moving water, and you’ve become separated from your boat, you should float on your back with your feet pointed downstream.

Retrieve Supplies

If you have any capsized supplies floating in your vicinity, collect as many as you can, especially objects such as flares and flotation devices. These will help you send a distress signal and can help keep you and your crew afloat.

Float, Don’t Swim

Unless you’re close to the shore, you should aim to float, not swim. To preserve your energy and save your life, you need to slow down the rate that your body cools down.

Floating horizontally on the surface of the water with your knees raised to your chest gives you the best chance of survival. If the waters are rough, ensure you float vertically and don’t inhale any water.

How To Prevent Your Boat Capsizing?

Capsizing is not an inevitability, and there are several things you can do to prevent it, such as:

  • Steer around corners at slow speeds and angles
  • Watch out for other boats
  • Stay low and centered when you’re in your boat
  • Avoid overloading your boat with supplies
  • Distribute the weight of your crew and your supplies evenly

You should also ensure you have a designated ‘grab bag’ on board, containing emergency signal devices. Other useful supplies to have in your grab bag should include:

  • Food
  • Navigation tools
  • Knife
  • Drinking water
  • Ship papers and passport
  • First aid kit
  • Flares
  • Sea anchor
  • Whistle and signaling mirror
  • Torch and spare batteries
  • Hand pump/bailer

You should also secure any heavy, loose items before setting sail to lower the risk of injury if your vessel capsizes.

What If A Passenger Goes Overboard?

If your boat hasn’t capsized but a passenger has gone overboard, here’s exactly what you should do:

  • Slow down your boat and stop it as quickly (and as safely) as possible.
  • Throw a life jacket, buoy, or something else buoyant into the water to help the person. This will keep them afloat and help alert others to their location if they sink.
  • Bring the boat as close to the person as possible, and throw them a heaving line or a flotation device attached to the boat.
  • By yourself or with the help of your crew, start pulling the person back onto the boat, and if you can, use the boarding ladder to help. Alternatively, you can use a rope or a chain to create a makeshift step for your boat.

The Bottom Line

If your vessel capsizes, your main priority is to stay afloat and stay alive. Wearing a functional life jacket will give the best chance of survival in the water, so NEVER set off to sea without one, and always check they’re in working condition before you set sail.

Remember: although capsizing is rare, it does happen, and these tips could save your life.

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