Your Boat Capsizes and Floats Away – What Should You Do?

No matter how much of an expert you are at sea, it’s always possible that your boat could capsize and float away.

Boat capsizes and floats away

There are many reasons why your boat could capsize, so it’s important to know how to prepare yourself in the event it does. However, most people think your boat capsizing and floating away can only happen if you’re not cautious or through careless mistakes, so why should you care?

Well, simply put, that’s not the case. Even the most talented and capable sailors are vulnerable to rough weather, navigation errors, or unknown ship damage, and all it takes is one mistake. This happens more than you think, for example only recently in August, French sailor Laurent Camprubi capsized in the Atlantic Ocean and was stuck for 16 hours before rescue. Whilst he survived, this unfortunately isn’t always the case.

This guide aims to prepare you for what to do if your boat capsizes and floats away, as well as to educate you on how to prevent it, what sailing equipment is vital, and why boats capsize in the first place.

Quick guide – what to do if your boat capsizes and floats away in 6 steps

1. Don’t panic – It’s going to take you by surprise, but you need to stay as calm as possible. Panicking increases heart rate and ultimately blood pressure, meaning you’re going to tire yourself quicker (2). You need to conserve energy for keeping yourself afloat and thinking clearly – so stay levelheaded.

2. Ensure your PFD is fastened securely – It is estimated that around 80% of boating-related deaths could have been avoided if the victim was wearing a PFD (3). Ensure it is fastened, inflated, and working correctly whilst sailing to prepare for being in the water in the event of capsizing.

3. If you don’t have a PFD, grab onto something buoyant – Whether it be a Lifebuoy or an object from your vessel, holding onto a buoyant object will conserve energy whilst staying afloat that can be well utilized later to aid survival when needed. This is also crucial for weaker swimmers/floaters.

4. In cold water, float in lieu instead of treading water – Treading water uses up energy that you don’t have, which will lead to hypothermia faster. Float instead to conserve energy.

5. Stay with shipmates and wait for help – The worst thing you can do if your boat capsizes and floats away is to lose or move away from any shipmates. Survival is greater in numbers and having others with you can aid survival and is better for your mental state.

6. As a last resort, attempt a swim to shore – If all else fails, no one is coming or there is an immediate threat to survival – your last resort is to swim to shore. Most average swimmers are estimated to not even be able to swim up to a mile if needed (4), so try and calculate your distance to shore in your head to see if it is worth attempting.

Detailed guide – What to do if your Boat Capsizes and Floats Away

The following steps are the best steps you can take to ensure survival in the event your boat capsizes and floats away.

Step 1 – Be Prepared

Before even setting off onto the water, it’s key that you’re prepared both physically and mentally for what to do if your boat capsizes. If you’re not prepared properly, then you are already lowering your chances of survival for both you and any passengers. There are 3 key things to consider:

1. Equipment

No matter the size of your vessel, there’s always going to be vital equipment you need aboard for the event of capsizing. Some are more useful than others, but all increase the chances of survival. Here are the 10 key pieces of equipment you need:

·  Personal Flotation Device

·  Life Buoy

·  VHF Radio


·  Ration box  

·  Whistle

·  Torch  

·  Waterproof satellite phone

·  10-15ft Nylon Rope

2. Body and Soul

An underestimated method of preparation for danger at sea is ensuring both your mind and body are ready. When it comes to the body, it’s important that no alcohol or other medication (E.g., drowsiness drugs or illegal substances) are consumed before sailing. Keeping your body on top form will ensure you’re as energetic and as quick thinking as you can be, which means you’ll be alert in the event of your boat capsizing and floating away.

However, it’s important to get into a steady mental state too. Familiarize yourself with what to expect during your journey (weather, sea patterns, etc) and ensure all systems are checked before setting off so you feel reassured. Relax and get yourself well rested before setting sail. Getting yourself into the calmest mental state as possible is going to help you think on your feet in the event your boat capsizes and floats away.

3. Training and practice

Whatever your experience in sailing, if you plan on venturing offshore or far out to sea, then it is important to have completed a training program or course associated with capsizing and water safety. Some organizations offer these courses for a fee or even some for free, most of which are lifeguard organizations or the Royal lifesaving society (Rlss). By undertaking courses like this, you can not only experience what it is like to capsize but be taught by professionals how to approach the situation.

Step 2 – Refrain from Panicking

Preparation can only take you so far, and if your boat capsizes and floats away, you need to take action in order to ensure you and your shipmates survive. Before doing anything, it’s vital you stay calm.  

Under stress, the body panics, and blood pressure spikes, usually causing you to not think clearly and ‘choke up’ (9). Whilst some panic is inevitable when your boat capsizes, being able to stay calm will prevent you from choking up and you’ll be able to think clearly. If not, you put yourself and others at risk, and you’re unlikely to be able to work through the necessary steps for surviving your boat capsizing.

So, how can you avoid panic? As soon as possible, take deep breaths in and steadily breathe in and out. Lower your breathing rate and remain level-headed before progressing further. A good tip is to practice some breathing methods prior to setting off – a famous method is the navy seal’s tactical breathing method, in which you breathe through the nose and count 4 seconds for each inhale/exhale (10).

Step 3 – Ensure your PFD is securely fastened

A personal flotation device is a buoyancy aid that helps an individual float. There are 5 types, all of which are different types of wearable device other than type 4 (a throwable buoyancy aid), and the type you have depends on the waters you are sailing (5).

The PFD is worn like a jacket. Firstly, you need to make sure you have the right size PFDs for you and your shipmates. To wear a PFD, loosen any straps and put it over your shoulders. Fasten any straps, starting at the waist and moving up, and ensure you are clipped in and zipped up. Ensure all buckles and straps are as tight as possible, but also so that the PFD doesn’t right up above your shoulders.

Many people make the mistake of getting the wrong size, which can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of a PFD. Also, some people start fastening the PFD from the shoulders down, which causes the PFD to ride up.

Step 4 – If you don’t have a PFD, grab onto something buoyant

If objects fall off of your boat when it capsizes and floats away, there’s a good chance some of these objects are buoyant. These could be large containers such as mini-fridges or storage boxes, anything that is likely filled with air. If the boat is damaged, it may result in parts of the boat being able to float such as doors or frames.

If you have no PFD of any kind, or any kind of life ring or buoyancy aid, then your next go-to will be scouting the area for any buoyant object.

Step 5 – In cold water, float in lieu of treading water to prevent hypothermia

Hypothermia is when your body loses heat faster than it is producing it, which usually happens when the body reaches below 35° (11). When your boat capsizes and you fall into water, your body temperature will begin to decrease over time (especially in cold water), and so prolonged exposure to the water will likely result in hypothermia.  

The first step to prevent hypothermia would be to stop treading water and instead attempt to float. With a PFD this should be easier, so lay back in the water and let the PFD do the work. People make the popular mistake of treading water, but by treading water you’re using up more energy that your body doesn’t have, so floating is preferable for survival. If possible, huddle with other shipmates to maintain warmth, and do not remove any clothing as this can act as insulation to aid body temperature.

Step 6 – Stay with shipmates and wait for help

A popular mistake that people make when their boat capsizes and floats away is to leave their shipmates. It’s better to huddle for warmth and to stay together to ensure people don’t get lost, especially during the night. Furthermore, in the event of heavy waves or another threat, you and your shipmates can grab hold of each other and increase your chances of survival.

As well as this, if one shipmate separates from the rest and they then find help, this doesn’t guarantee the separated shipmate will.

Step 7 – Swim to shore as a last resort

If no rescue is coming and the chances of survival are looking slim, your last resort would be to attempt to swim to shore. Only do this if you are confident there is no other option or help coming. Most individuals can only swim up to a mile if they need to (3), so consider this when deciding.

If you do swim, try and use any rations before for energy, and swim steadily rather than fast, avoiding waves where possible.

Why do boats capsize?

There are a number of reasons why a boat can capsize. The most common reason is due to uneven or poorly distributed weight, meaning one side is heavier than the other and so more likely to tip (12). Other reasons include harsh weather or too many people, but the second most likely cause is due to leaks (12) that may not have been seen or fixed, or even the drain plug not being fitted during sailing. Small boats are more affected, as it is much easier to be thrown off balance with less weight.

How can I prevent my boat from capsizing?

Firstly, you should check the weather before setting out to sea no matter how far out you plan on going. The weather can change quickly, so don’t make the mistake of assuming it will stay calm even if it looks it, and make sure to check an up-to-date weather forecast. You should also remove unnecessary items from your boat too so you can prevent uneven weight distribution, as many people make the mistake of overloading. Make sure no water is present before setting off, ensure any previous leaks have been properly fixed and that your boat is safe for use.

What should you do if your boat capsizes and floats away?

Follow the steps above for the best way to deal with a boat capsizing. Immediately try and calm yourself and shipmates so you can think clearly. It’s key at this point to ensure both you and your shipmates are wearing PFDs that are securely fastened before moving onto any next steps. Don’t make the mistake of not wearing a PFD, as it’s unlikely that you’ll have the time to grab one and put it on in the short time between capsizing and being capsized.

What equipment do I need?

In the event your boat capsizes and floats away, you need to have the right equipment to increase your chances of survival. This includes:

·  Personal Flotation Device – Arguably the most important piece of equipment for any sailor, this is a floatation device (typically wearable) that allows a person to float. A PFD is designed for prolonged use in water and comes in 5 types, of which type 1 is the most buoyant and most suitable for use in the event of your boat capsizing and floating away (5).

·  Life Buoy – A throwable buoyancy aid such as a life ring is vital if you or any of your shipmates are not strong swimmers. This can be held onto to preserve energy rather than tiring yourself, so the danger to weak swimmers is reduced. This can also help stronger swimmers preserve energy that can later be used to aid survival. Type 4 PFDs are suitable life buoys (5). 

·  VHF Radio – A two-way radio transmitter that can be used to contact the coast guard or other ships about your boat capsizing. Channel 16 is the designated mayday channel, and most VHF radios can transmit up to 60 miles away (6). These are costly devices, but highly beneficial if your boat capsizes.

·  EPIRB – Emergency position indicating radio beacon devices are costly (most sites sell at a minimum of £500) but can broadcast the location of your vessel in an emergency and potentially an accurate GPS location (7). If a VHF radio is not an option, a EPIRB would be the next suitable choice.

·  Ration box – A waterproof ration box is vital for survival if you are out on the water for a prolonged period of time. You never know how long it could take to get rescued, and not only does the body need food and water, but high-energy foods (especially sugar or caffeine) can go a long way in preventing fatigue.

·  Whistle – Whistles usually come with a wearable PFD or lifejacket, but it’s always handy to have one incase. They are especially useful in alerting nearby vessels audibly if you are in the dark or unclear weather.

·  Torch – Vital if you’re going to be in the water in unclear weather or in the dark, which is likely if you’re far out at sea. A torch can not only indicate position to some nearby ships (short distances), but it ensures visibility through the night.

·  Waterproof satellite phone – Similar to a EPIRB OR VHF radio, satellite phones can be great for contacting the authorities in the event of your boat capsizing and floating away as they use satellites to transmit signals. However, they are illegal in some countries and their uses are regulated. For the top 10 best marine-based satellite phones of this year, take a look at this top 10 list by (8).·  10-15ft Nylon Rope – a stretch of nylon rope about 10-15ft long can be a good way to pull yourself onto the hull of your vessel (depending on its size) or if your boat is floating away. It’s better to stay with the boat if it capsizes instead of letting it float away, but it’s better to climb onto the Hull and out of the water if it is possible.