What You Should & Should NOT Do If Your Boat Capsizes | Boating Expert Tips
What Should You Do If Your Boat Capsizes?

There's nothing better than heading out on your boat for a day of fishing, playing or relaxing. Unfortunately, a fun outing can turn into a serious emergency if your boat capsizes while it's on the water. Capsizing is more common than you might think and happens to vessels of all sizes. It's essential to know what to do before your boat capsizes and you find yourself stranded in open water.

Getting & Staying Prepared on Your Boat

All trained survival experts preach the importance of staying calm during an emergency. If your boat capsizes, it is essential to stay as calm as possible. In most situations, you can minimize injuries and vessel damage by thinking clearly about the steps you need to execute.

It sounds easy, but we all know that staying calm can be difficult. One of the best ways to stay calm during a capsizing incident is to prepare ahead of time. Having the knowledge and equipment for a capsize will help you stay calm and make smart decisions in a scary situation. Remember that you should always take a flare gun, emergency radio and life jackets for everyone on your boat.

What Causes Boats to Capsize?

No small watercraft owner wants their boat to capsize. Understanding why boats capsize will help you eliminate risks to your safety. Review all manufacturer safety information for your boat to ensure that you understand your craft's anatomy and operation. You can generally minimize the most common risks for capsizing, which are poor weight distribution, leaks and bad weather.

Poor Weight Distribution

Every boat is designed to carry a certain amount of weight. Overloading your boat or placing passengers and cargo in the wrong areas makes it more prone to capsizing. Many boat manufacturers provide charts of where passengers should be seated and heavy items such as loaded coolers should be placed. As you load up, be sure that weight is evenly distributed around the boat. Exceeding the weight limit even slightly substantially increases your risk of an accident.


Leaks caused by faulty fittings and human error are another common cause of capsizing. Always double-check that your drain plug is installed before you go out on the water. Leaking fittings are harder to detect because they are usually in hidden areas of live wells or bait boxes. Staying current on boat maintenance and fixing issues as soon as they arise is essential to preventing these types of leaks.

Bad Weather

Of course, bad weather is the third leading cause of capsizing accidents. A sudden storm or squall can cause even a large boat to capsize. While there's nothing that you can do to control the weather, you do control when you go out on your boat. Always check the weather report and on-water forecast before you head out. Find the NOAA Weather Radio frequency for your area and use it. If the weather suddenly turns while you're on the water, head to shore immediately.

If you are going out in your boat in colder weather, consider wearing a wetsuit. A wetsuit will help protect you from hypothermia in case of an accident on the water. Of course, it will also help you stay comfortable if you're battling a big fish or run into inclement weather while you're out.

Steps to Take if Your Boat Capsizes

Before you depart on any water outing, give a trusted person information about your route and when you'll be back. Even if it's a short trip or you've done it a thousand times, let someone know where you're going. If your boat does capsize, you will have someone on land to alert authorities.

1. Check to see if anyone is injured and needs immediate help. Be especially vigilant for anyone in your party who may be unconscious, dizzy or confused. Perform emergency first aid to the best of your ability. Small scratches, bruises and injuries should be assessed after you've completed the other items on this list.

2. Put on a personal flotation device or life jacket if you are not already wearing one. It's a good idea to wear a life jacket all the time while you're on the water. If you took yours off, put it on as soon as possible after you capsize. Children and weak swimmers should be encouraged to keep their life jackets on at all times to prevent accidental drowning after a capsizing incident.

3. Take a headcount. Make sure that everyone who was on your boat is accounted for. If someone in your party is missing, attempt to make visual contact with that person. If you cannot make visual contact, be prepared to tell the Coast Guard or other rescuers how many people on your vessel are missing.

4. Climb onto the hull of your boat if possible. Water brings down core body temperature much quicker than air. If at all possible, get up on the hull of your boat and stay out of the water. If you carry a first aid kit with emergency foil blankets, get them out and wrap up. They help retain heat and can make it easier for rescuers to spot you.

If you can't climb onto your boat, look for other flotation devices. Improvise and use debris if nothing else is available. Treading water or swimming wastes energy and can negatively affect your core body temperature. Remember that floating is the most basic water survival skill for a reason.

5. Access emergency supplies such as flares, emergency blankets and spare flotation devices. Carrying signal or smoke flares in a small bag that you can grab during an emergency is a must. Once you're sure everyone is accounted for, prepare a signal flare. Remember that it's best to save flares for when another boat is in your area or you can see aircraft overhead. Choose brightly-colored life jackets that will be easy to spot in an emergency.

If you can't get to flares or another signaling device, you can try the strategy of scattering debris around your boat. All debris should be tethered for the best result. The basic idea is that a patch of brightly colored debris will attract attention, especially if someone is looking for you.

6. Stay in a group and with your boat. It is never a good idea to break up into small groups and swim away from each other after a capsize. Everyone in your party needs to stay together and wait for help. If you are able to get on top of your vessel, huddle together to maintain warmth.

You should only leave your boat if it is heading towards imminent danger. A capsized boat is much easier for rescue crews to spot in water than a few individual swimmers. If you are very close to shore, you might attempt to swim in. If you are more than 300 feet from shore, you should not attempt to swim to land. Even strong swimmers are prone to hypothermia and exhaustion if they swim too far without the appropriate gear.

7. Stay optimistic and wait for help. In a survival situation, believing you are going to make it is essential. Try not to give into pessimism, fear or panic. Remind yourself that help is on the way and that you will be out of the water soon. The more optimistic your group, the better you can work together to ensure survival after your boat capsizes.