Capsizing and Overboard Prevention

fisherman standing on boat
capsized boat

The stability of small, open boats can be precarious, and they may easily tip over.

An accident involving a fall overboard or a capsize is the leading cause of death in small boats. The US Coast Guard estimates that 70% of people who drown while boating do not wear lifejackets. Boat operators need to know how to prevent such emergencies and quickly respond if they do.

But what is capsizing?

Capsizing occurs when a boat overturns or is swamped with water. It frequently happens with small boats like canoes and sailboats. The good thing about small boats is that they usually stay afloat, so boaters in the water will have something to support them. 

Capsizing and falling overboard pose a potential risk of injury or death, reinforcing the importance of knowledge regarding prevention and response. In swamping, the vessel is upright but is partially submerged in water, which increases the risk of sinking.

Overloaded Vessels

To become proficient in overcoming the limitations of the vessel’s carriage, boaters must remain fully aware of their vessel’s carriage capabilities. Operators should always attempt to keep the boat loaded as light as possible to maximize safety. It is hazardous to overload a boat with people and equipment.

image showing properly loaded boat
Properly Loaded

image showing boat overloaded with passengers

More importantly, follow the guidelines on the boat’s capacity plate. Boaters should always use their best judgment when making load decisions and consider all conditions, including bad weather or when the weight cannot be distributed evenly. Avoid falling and tipping the boat by maintaining three points of contact.

As a preventative measure, boaters can do the following: 

  1. Avoiding Rough Waters: Before heading out onto the water, operators should review the latest area forecast to avoid emergencies. Additionally, boaters should be aware of local conditions, such as rough waters, that may increase their chances of capsizing.
  2. Wearing PDFs: Boaters must ensure that all persons on board wear life jackets to maintain a high level of safety. The majority of people who drown in recreational boating accidents do not wear a life jacket, as revealed by 90% of these drowning cases. It may be difficult for boaters to find and put on a life jacket when they are experiencing heavy winds and waves. The cold water can further complicate the task or even make it impossible.
  3. Maintaining a Low-Centered Position While: A great danger is involved in overloading one side of a boat with people. As much as possible, boaters should distribute the weight evenly and keep the boat as light as possible. Passengers should be able to board the boat securely when the boat is tied to the dock. They should stay low and step into the boat’s center when moving around. The center of gravity of a small boat is raised by standing on it, resulting in instability. Changing the center of gravity can cause the boat to capsize or cause a passenger to fall into the water due to a wave, sudden turn, or wake.

How to Respond If Your Boat Capsized or You Fall Overboard

  1. Prioritize wearing a Personal Flotation Device for all persons on board. Wearing a life jacket is always better than risking being stranded in the water without one.
  2. If you are boating with passengers, stay together. Make a headcount and make sure everyone is present.
  3. As long as the boat is safe, stay inside it. Immediately leave when it is heated or has become hazardous.
  4. Take initiative! Use improvised floating devices that are within your reach.
  5. Stay calm and never panic.
  6. Lastly, get out of the water as quickly as possible!



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