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

  • Remain calm and conserve energy
  • Immediately do a head count to make sure everyone is with the boat
  • Ensure that all crew members are wearing PFDs. Put them on if not wearing them already
  • Have everyone stay with the boat; there may be possibilities of righting it, and rescuers can find you more easily
  • Use improvised floating devices that are within your reach
  • Call for assistance if you can using any device you have available and report your location, number of people, description of boat and the nature of the distress.
  • Leave the boat only if it is headed toward a hazard and as a last resort

If you do lose the boat, or can’t right it, try to use anything you can to help you stay above water. The higher you are in the water, the easier it will be to find you. Your next step is to try to get help. Signaling for help takes restraint – you don’t want to tire yourself out or run out of signals such as flares. Having signal flares, smoke flares, whistles, or a horn is very important. If all you have is an upside down boat, your options are limited. Some people paint the hull of their boat florescent orange to make it more visible if they capsize. Even the clothes you wear can help you survive longer and get rescued faster.

  • Take turns being the designated “signaler” who yells at a regular interval, or waves at passersby.
  • Try to make everyone as “big” as possible (put on what you can, pull floating debris near you).
  • If you do have appropriate signaling devices, use them only when other vessels are in sight so you can be sure they will be able to see or hear you!

Take precautions against swamping and capsizing: Watch that loaded items do not shift from side to side, guard against too much power or speed in turns, and be aware of wakes from passing boats. Take waves at an angle to the bow, at low speeds, giving the hull a chance to ride over rather than dive into them.

Recognizing and Recovering Crew Overboard (COB)

When spotting a person in the water look for tell-tale signs they are in distress:

  • They’re not making progress: If a person appears to be swimming but isn’t making headway, they might be in trouble. Currents can be strong and can quickly exhaust even strong swimmers.
  • They’re vertical in the water: People treading water might look like they’re vertical in the water, but they’re usually able to call for help. A drowning person, on the other hand, will usually be vertical in the water but unable to call or wave for help.
  • They’re silent: Contrary to what we see in movies, real-life drowning is often silent. A person who is drowning typically cannot call for help as their efforts are focused on breathing.
  • They appear to be climbing an invisible ladder: One common sign of drowning is when a person appears to be pulling on an unseen ladder or continually reaching out in front of them. This is an attempt to keep their mouth above water.
  • They’re floating face down without movement: This is a clear sign of distress. The person may be unconscious or unable to flip over and swim due to exhaustion.
  • They’re splashing and waving: While a person in the early stages of drowning is typically unable to wave for help, someone who is struggling and still has energy may splash and wave.
  • Changes in appearance: Look for signs of panic, such as wide eyes and gasping. Also, note if their skin or lips turn blue or pale.

When someone is identified as Overboard, initiate the following procedures to recover them:

  • Stop the boat’s forward progress! Every second that you move away from the COB will make it harder for you to get back to them.
  • Get flotation to the person. A Lifesling will help keep the swimmer afloat and help you get them into the boat.
  • Take a head count to see who fell overboard. Knowing who fell overboard will help you plan the rescue. For instance, if the largest person on the boat fell overboard, it might take more equipment or people to bring that person back aboard. Knowing who you are going after will help you decide who needs to do what in the rescue.
  • Assign roles to crewmembers. Have a lookout to keep the person in sight.
  • Get the boat next to the COB. Approach the person from downwind placing them between your boat and the wind. This will increase your ability to maneuver, and will take less time to get the person to the boat.
  • Do not approach from upwind. Placing your boat between the swimmer and the wind will give the person flatter seas, but you run the risk of floating over them, which will take away your ability to steer due to the danger of the propeller.
  • Get the person on the boat. This can be very difficult, especially if the person is hurt, weak, or unconscious. Lifeslings, swim platforms, ladders, and brute strength are all methods of bringing someone on board. Practice all and pick the best one for your boat and crew.
  • Avoid sending a rescuer into the water. This will just be another person that could potentially need rescue. If someone needs to go over to help a weak or injured person, make sure they have a life jacket on and a lifeline secured to them.



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