overhead view of sailboat on water

Why Is It Dangerous to Leave Your Boat After Capsizing?

It’s every boater’s worst nightmare: a large swell or wave overwhelms your boat, rolling it or swamping the bow. Maybe the hull split or the through-hull failed. Maybe your kayak flipped, or someone forgot to install the plug in the vessel.

Regardless of the reason, if you find yourself suddenly in the water after your boat capsizes, your only priority should be to survive. We hope the following information helps if you ever find yourself dealing with a capsized boat.

What Causes a Boat to Capsize?

When a boat or ship rolls completely over or onto its side, this is known as a “capsize.” Although boats are inherently stable, there are several causes that can make them unstable and lead to capsizing.

The following are the three leading causes of capsizing:

  1. Poorly distributed or too much weight - The chances of small boats capsizing increase when there is too much cargo or there are too many passengers in one part of the boat, which can negatively impact stability despite being within maximum capacity. Weight must be distributed evenly, especially in smaller vessels.

  2. Leaks - Whether the boat’s fittings are leaking or the operator forgot to put the drain plug in, leaks can cause water to enter the bottom of the boat and affect stability. A strong wave or wake could then cause the vessel to flip.

  3. Weather - Inclement weather can be disastrous. While modest waves or even wakes can overwhelm small boats easily, larger boats can be flipped over by sudden squalls.

Smaller boats are the most likely to capsize. On the other hand, larger boats are often more stable, even though capsizing is still a possibility. The important take away is that you need to know what you should do to reduce the risk of capsizing.

What Should You Do if Your Boat Capsizes?

The first thing that you will want to do if your boat capsizes is to right the vessel if it’s small and light, like a kayak or sailboat. This is not possible with every capsized boat. If it is not possible to right the vessel, do not panic. Instinctively, you may want to swim away from a large vessel that has capsized or is sinking. However, the best thing you can do while your boat is capsizing is to stay with the boat.

You will want to do a headcount and make sure that no one is injured and everyone is accounted for. If someone was not wearing a lifejacket, try to locate one and put it on.

Capsizing Tip 1: Use Your Boat as a Flotation Device

You should think of your boat as your primary “life raft” in the event of a boat emergency like capsizing. Of course, if you have an actual life raft on board, this is when you will want to use it. If you don’t, however, your capsized boat can serve as a floatation device for you and others who have been tossed into the water.

Most recreational boats, specifically those that fit on a traditional trailer, will stay afloat for hours or even days after overturning or becoming partially flooded. Depending on how long it takes for you to be located and rescued, getting on top of the capsized vessel can make all the difference between becoming fatigued and stay alive. So, do not abandon your capsized boat unless some sort of danger makes doing so impossible.

Capsizing Tip 2: Improved Visibility

Another important reason to stay with your boat is visibility. If you’ve spent any amount of time on the water, you’ve likely lost something—a hat, a pair of sunglasses—overboard. Think of how quickly that item disappeared from view, even if it was floating. In large bodies of water, a human being can be incredibly difficult to spot.

Rescue personnel onboard watercraft and aircraft may be unable to detect an individual in the water, but the hull of an overturned vessel can be much easier to spot. If the boat capsized and you stay with your boat, you increase the chances that you will be found and rescued quickly.

If there are multiple members on board, everyone should stay together. Take a headcount and make sure that everyone is accounted for. It is important to try to keep the members calm and try not to panic and swim for shore.

The Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System

The Coast Guard can often locate capsized boats by using what is known as the Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System (SAROPS).

This technology allows the Coast Guard to account for:

  • Weather conditions
  • Water current patterns
  • Your point of departure
  • And other important details to pinpoint your location

By staying with your boat, you limit the risk of being carried by the current to a more difficult-to-find location. If you were separated from your boat in a river, float on your back with your feet pointing downstream.

How to Reduce the Risk of Capsizing Your Boat

The best way to avoid a life-threatening boating accident is to follow all applicable safety practices and procedures every time you are out on the water. Most capsizes occur because boats are overloaded or unbalanced.

Avoid this by:

  • Following the recommended load capacity of your vessel
  • Never load your boat beyond the maximum load capacity
  • And always ensure that passengers, cargo, equipment, and other items are loaded properly to avoid imbalances

You should also avoid boating in rough, unsafe waters and poor weather conditions. Even experienced boaters can quickly find themselves in dangerous situations when swells reach significant heights, and inclement weather can dramatically reduce visibility if someone goes into the water.

Remember, the smaller your watercraft, the more dangerous overloading and unsafe conditions are. A relatively small, low-sitting vessel can easily be flooded, swamped, or capsized, especially when conditions are less than ideal.

Practice Good Seamanship

You should also always practice good seamanship.

This means:

  • Obeying all navigational rules
  • Avoiding excessive speeds
  • Following the law
  • And never operate a boat or watercraft while intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol or drugs

Take turns at appropriate speeds and always keep a lookout for hazards in the water, as well as swimmers and other items. Slow down for large waves and wakes and, if possible, pass over them head-on or, if necessary, at a slight angle.

The more parallel to a large wave or wake your vessel is, the more likely it could become flooded or capsize. You should also avoid anchoring from the stern, as this can cause flooding and may capsize your boat.

How to Prepare for a Boating Emergency

Even when you follow all proper safety procedures, you may still find yourself facing an emergency on the water. It is important that you take several critical measures to protect yourself and your passengers in the event of a sinking, capsizing, or person overboard.

First and foremost, everyone on board should remain seated and wear a lifejacket. In Ohio, all children 10 and younger must wear approved lifejackets on boats that are 18 feet long or under. Lifejackets must be worn properly and must be securely fastened while the vessel is in motion.

While the law does not apply to those over the age of 10, it is a good idea to always wear a lifejacket while on board, regardless of:

  • Age
  • Swimming skill level
  • Or any other factors

Ohio law also mandates that all vessels 16 feet and under must have at least one approved lifejacket per person onboard. Boats greater than 16 feet in length must also have one lifejacket for each passenger, as well as a throwable safety floatation device approved by the Coast Guard on board at all times.

Make sure you know and follow all applicable boating laws; keep all required safety equipment on board and check to make sure it is all in good working order. You should also carry an emergency bag (known as a “ditch bag”) onboard, containing signaling devices, lifejackets, a waterproof radio, a first aid kit, a waterproof GPS device, water, and other critical items you may need in the event of an emergency.

Click here to learn more about building a ditch bag for your boat.

When the boat is moving, make sure that all passengers remain seated to avoid a person overboard emergency. Losing a person overboard can be just as dangerous as your boat capsizing or flooding; avoid this type of incident by making sure everyone is properly distributed and stays seated. Children should always be supervised at all times while onboard any type of boat or personal watercraft.

Should You Ever Leave Your Boat If It Capsizes?

There are some situations in which it may be safe—and even advisable—to leave a capsized or sinking vessel. Always make sure that you are wearing a lifejacket before attempting to leave any item—such as a boat or piece of debris—to get to another place of safety.

If you are on a large vessel that carries lifeboats or has life rafts, you should try to get to one of those rather than stay with the flooded or overturned vessel (if safe to do so). However, this is not often the case for recreational boaters on small- to mid-size vessels that typically do not carry lifeboats or rafts.

If your boat capsizes or becomes flooded in a small body of water, such as a river or small lake, and you are near the shore, you can leave your overturned or swamped vessel and swim to the nearest bank. Again, you should only attempt to do this while wearing a life jacket.

Even a seemingly short swim can cause a strong swimmer to become fatigued. Fatigue is one of the leading causes of drowning and death in boating accidents, so we only recommend that you attempt to swim to shore with the aid of a lifejacket or another safety device.

If there were others in the boat with you when it overturned, always make sure that everyone is accounted for (if possible and safe to do so). Do not attempt to bring another person to shore unless you are confident in your swimming skills and are wearing a lifejacket. The safest thing you can do is help others onto the capsized or overturned vessel and wait for help.

What to Do If You Are Involved in a Boating Accident

After being rescued and/or getting yourself to a place of safety, the first thing you should do is check yourself and others for injuries. If necessary/possible, call 911.

Always seek immediate medical attention, even if your injuries seem minor or like they will heal on their own. Not only is this important for your overall safety and well-being, but it can also be critical in the event that you choose to pursue a personal injury claim.

If you can, try to document the scene. Take pictures of your boat, any other vessels involved, and your injuries. If you were injured or if your loved one died, hold on to any evidence that can help prove what happened and, importantly, who may be liable. We strongly recommend that you reach out to an experienced personal injury lawyer if you were involved in a boating accident.

How Murray & Murray Can Help

At Murray & Murray, our Sandusky boat accident attorneys represent clients throughout Erie County and the state of Ohio who have suffered catastrophic injuries and unimaginable losses due to the negligent and wrongful conduct of others. We have secured millions of dollars for our clients and are prepared to help you fight for the justice you deserve.

There are no fees unless we win your case. Contact us today to request a complimentary consultation with a boat accident attorney at our firm.