Capsizing and Falls Overboard

Capsizing and Falls Overboard

Fisherman standing on small open boatCapsized small boat

Small, open boats can be highly unstable and may tip easily. Boat sinkings, capsizing and passenger falls overboard have been deemed responsible for nearly 70 percent of all boating fatalities in the U.S., making it consistently the leading cause of death for operators and passengers. Boat operators should fully understand how to prevent such emergencies and how to quickly respond if a capsizing or a fall overboard occurs.

  • Capsizing means that a boat has either turned up on one side or had flipped completely over.
  • Swamping occurs when the boat is upright but is filled with water.

The risk of injury/death caused by capsizing and falls overboard reinforces the importance of proper and adequate prevention and response knowledge and preparedness.

Always remember that a lifejacket can best protect someone who has fallen overboard. If a boater or passenger falls into the water with their lifejacket on board, the boat could be too far away to reach. It is better to wear a lifejacket at all times than to risk being stranded in the water without one.

Prevention of Capsizing/ Falls Overboard

Boaters are legally responsible for their passengers. Operators must take action to prevent themselves and their passengers from falling from the boat into the water.

Important techniques to prevent capsizing/falls overboard include the following.

Never Overload

Properly loaded boat

Properly Loaded


Overloaded boat


Boaters should remain fully aware of their vessel’s carriage limitations and should possess the skill and knowledge to overcome them. For maximum safety, operators should always strive to keep as small a load as possible on the boat. Overloading a boat with equipment and people is very dangerous. Too much weight will make a watercraft unstable and it may dip under water or allow small waves to crash onboard.

Read and take into account the guidelines on the boat’s capacity plate. A boat’s weight limits should be modified for bad weather or when the weight cannot be evenly distributed, and boaters should always take into account all conditions and use their best judgment when making load decisions. Always maintain three points of contact with the boat to avoid tipping and falling.

Stay Centered and Low While Avoiding Standing

Overloading one side of a boat with people is also very dangerous. Boaters should ensure that all weight on the boat is as evenly distributed and low as possible.

The boat should be tied securely to the dock when passengers are boarding. Passengers should step into the center of the boat and should keep low when moving around.

Standing on a small boat raises the center of gravity and can cause the boat to become unstable. The change in the center of gravity makes it possible for a wave, sudden turn or wake to capsize the boat or cause a passenger to fall into the water. Passengers should also be especially careful when changing seating position and should avoid riding on a pedestal seat while the boat is underway.

Avoid Rough Waters

To avoid emergency situations, operators should get the latest area forecast before heading onto the water. Boaters should also be aware of any local situations, such as rough waters, that may make it more likely for a boat to capsize.

Boat operators should avoid rough waters as much as possible, as they can cause the boat to tip enough to allow water to spill onboard, or cause passengers to fall and injure themselves. Anticipate waves and aim the bow of the vessel into them.

Responding to Capsizing/ Falls Overboard

Wearing PFDs/Life Jackets

The most important safety priority for boaters is to ensure that all persons on board are wearing a lifejacket at all times.

About 90 percent of people who drown in recreational boating accidents are not wearing a lifejacket. When boaters experience heavy winds and waves, it can be quite difficult to locate and put on a lifejacket. Cold water can make it even more difficult, or impossible.

If a boater or passenger falls into the water with their lifejacket on board, the boat could be too far away to reach. It is better to wear a lifejacket at all times than to risk being stranded in the water without one.

Procedures for Recovery of Persons in Water

As mentioned before, it is the operator’s responsibility to conduct a sufficient passenger briefing before heading out, ensuring that all persons onboard understand how to safely and quickly recover a person in the water. Recovery procedures should be adapted in various water conditions, water temperatures and watercraft.

A highly effective and timely response would be to throw a Type IV PFD or any other immediately available floating aid to the person(s) in the water.

If a boat capsizes or passenger(s) fall into the water, procedures for recovery should also include:

  • Taking a head count to ensure that all passengers have been accounted for
  • Staying with the watercraft when safe and appropriate
  • Using improvised floating aids, such as wood, debris or other floating materials that may be near

All small pleasure boats that were constructed after 1978 are fitted with flotation devices to keep them from sinking when capsized. For this reason, passengers should remain with the boat as opposed to attempting to swim to shore. This also makes it easier for rescuers and passing boaters to see the passengers.

If the boat capsizes or a person falls overboard, he/she should follow the strategies below to remain afloat until he/she can be rescued:

  • Remain calm without thrashing about or panicking
  • Do not try to remove clothing or footwear
  • If a lifejacket is being worn, keep it on
  • Keep his/her knees bent
  • Float on his/her back while paddling to safety.

It is a common misconception that persons dressed in heavy clothing or waders will sink more quickly. In fact, air trapped in clothing actually provides a considerable amount of flotation. As mentioned before, clothes should be kept on when a fall has occurred.