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What Should You Do if Your Small Open Boat Capsizes?

Written by J. Harvey / Fact checked by S. Numbers

what should you do if your small open boat capsizes

You’re sailing merrily along with your trusty small vessel. Suddenly, a strong gust of wind causes your boat to heel and ultimately lose its balance.

For novice boaters, capsizing can be a nerve-racking experience. It’s only right that you should know the best answers to “What should you do if your small open boat capsizes?”

  • The first step is to not panic. Prioritize staying with the boat and do your best to stay afloat with it or other objects nearby.
  • Position yourself under the hull and grab onto it for support.
  • Attempt to right the boat.
  • Signal for help.

Continue reading to learn the details.

The Best Practices to Do if Your Small Vessel Capsizes

Besides staying calm, you have to anticipate other factors with regard to what should you do first during and after the accident. Knowing what to do in such situations only adds to your sailing skills.

1. Wear a personal flotation device


Keeping a personal flotation device (PFD) on will help you save energy staying afloat and dampens the initial impact on the water. It’s considered the safest way to float. Therefore, you should always wear a PFD in case something crops up.

On the off chance that you’re not wearing one, then I suggest you prioritize finding and putting one on the moment the boat capsizes.

2. Check if everyone is present.

When a boat capsizes, you should never forget to pinpoint the location of everybody. This will help you notice at once if someone is missing. Otherwise, it can be hard to find and rescue the person who has been lost for too long.

3. Head to the back of the boat and cling to it for dear life


People are advised to float for back of boat because it minimizes the risks of getting trapped under the hull should it turn upside down. Grab onto anything you can keep a firm hold of (e.g., the transducer or centerboard).

Should you not make it to the back side of water float before the boat inverts, again, keep calm. Take a deep breath, then swim out from underneath the upturned hull. If the boat fully rolls over, you can climb up and over the hull.

4. Push the sails upward for air


Let’s say the vessel capsizes, and you end up being buried under the sails. This can lead to drowning.

Should you find yourself in that position, one reliable practice is to create a pocket of air by pushing the sail upward. That should leave you with enough breathing room to effectively swim away from its trapping clutches.

5. Try to right the boat


Note that you should only attempt this if you have at least a companion or if the boat isn’t too heavy. Otherwise, it’s best that you save your energy waiting for rescue.

In order to right the boat, put all your weight onto the daggerboard. If it’s big enough, you can attempt to climb on top of it. This will cause the vessel to turn enough that you can grab and pull the gunwale – allowing you to bring the boat back to an upright position.

Alternatively, you can use the scoop method. It involves assigning a helmsman that will use their body weight on the centerboard to right the boat by standing on it.

All the while, the other passengers will position themselves in the cockpit to get ready to climb aboard as the helmsman helps the boat to correct itself. They’ll then help the helmsman climb aboard.

6. Start signaling for aid if you can’t right the boat.

This is especially true if you’re alone and the boat is too heavy for you to correct. Save your flares for when you can actually see a potential rescuer nearby. In the meantime, stay close to your boats and gather all the nearby items. 

What’s good is that most monohulls are designed to right themselves. This is why I can’t underline the importance of staying with the boat throughout your ordeal – however short or long it may be.

You can use a fog horn, flags, and flashlights first, then shoot the flare once you’re sure that it will get the potential rescuer’s attention.

What Causes This Problem?


Vessel overturn is normal simply because we have no way of ever anticipating just how fickle the sea, winds, and waves can get.

It’s not just the weather that is at fault. Boat capsizing can also be due to sailor errors. A sudden shift in weight can cause a small boat to turn over, as does anchoring incorrectly when, for example, fishing.

And who’s to say you’ll be able to completely avoid collisions with other vessels? Are you making sure that your passengers’ weight distribution is even? The wrongly trimmed sails can be a recipe for disaster as well.

There’s also the possibility of damage in the boat that you may have overlooked. Did you check for any holes in the hull, which may cause water to seep in?

On a final note, a small boat capsizes because it doesn’t have the same stability as other larger vessels.

Ways to Prevent Boats From Capsizing

Based on my experience, it’s better to avoid capsizing or swamping rather than always relying on your know-how to remedy a capsized vessel.

  • Try to adopt a mindset that you’ll need to consistently improve your seamanship. While capsizing can happen to anyone, more experienced sailors know their and their vessel’s limits.

They’ll know how to avoid being in swift water and risky spots during bad weather conditions – and over time, you should, too. Don’t hesitate to take a boater’s safety course if you haven’t already, or take one as a refresher.

  • If you have a good reaction time, you can actually prevent the capsizing as it’s happening. To do this, you’ll need to position yourself quickly to the tilted side.

Then drop down on the hull’s centerboard. Your body weight will help the boat tilt back to the initial position; however, you have to be quick to climb back in as it rights itself.

  • To avoid collisions, you have to be extra vigilant or assign a passenger or crew to be on the lookout.

Frequently Asked Questions

What types of boats are more susceptible to capsizing?

Smaller boats, such as sailboats, canoes, or kayaks, tend to capsize more. You can blame most of it on their relative instability compared to larger vessels.

The small size also means the boats are more likely to get overloaded quickly, leading to uneven weight distribution.

Jet skis are no exception, especially if you ride them through challenging water conditions.

Read details on this post: The Most Types of Boat Capsizes 

Tips to get back in the boat if it capsizes

It’s entirely possible to get back in the boat if it capsizes; what’s important is knowing the exact steps you need to take sequentially.

  • The first thing you need to do is to right the boat by following the tips I shared above.
  • Once that’s done, and you’re with a passenger, ask them to help you climb on board. Usually, it’s best to quickly climb over the stern or the side of the boat with someone assisting you.

Do not climb under the boom, as the extra weight you exert will likely cause the vessel to capsize once more.

  • If you’re alone, you can still put weight on either the centerboard or gunwale to right it, as I’ve explained above. However, if you can’t right the boat, the next best thing is to crawl onto the hull.

If you tend to sail solo on your sailboat, I highly recommend remembering the pointers from the video below.


I hope that I’ve given a satisfactory answer to “What should you do if your small open boat capsizes?” Remember: it’s ideal to perform preventative measures by wearing personal flotation devices and improving your sailing skills first and foremost.

From there, keep in mind the tips I’ve shared here, such as the importance of never straying away from your boat and the different ways you can re-enter it. Lastly, help is almost always within arm’s reach for any sailor, so don’t hesitate to ask for it. 

Read next: The Safest Way to Float if Your Small Craft Capsizes

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