What To Do If Your Boat Capsizes

Life Jacket Safety

A boating accident is a worst-case scenario, but one you can’t afford to be unprepared for. Let’s look at what to do if your boat capsizes.


How to stay safe on the water

Practice responding. Your worst enemy in an actual incident is panic. One way to override or lessen panic is to run drills with full safety equipment, including signal flares, smoke flares, and distress signals techniques. This helps you know what to do if your boat capsizes.

When in doubt, slow down. If something about where you are boating doesn’t feel right or match the map, slow down. Every impact is lessened when you take speed away, even in poor weather.

Count off regularly. Get everyone used to numbering themselves off, listening for the last number. It’s one of the quickest ways to check the head count and know if anyone is missing.

What to do if your boat capsizes

#1: Stay near the boat

The boat is the biggest and ideally the brightest thing in the water. Your goal is firstly survival, and secondly to attract rescuers. Let’s break that down. 


Many boats are designed to right themselves even if they tip far enough to the side that its occupants fall into the water. In that case, there might be a chance to return to the boat. Any water still in the boat can be bailed out or the bilge pump used for that purpose.

Most boats are inherently buoyant enough that if they do fully capsize, they will remain afloat. In that case, it becomes easier for those in the water to find something to float with. If the area is calm enough, you can even stay close enough to right the boat yourselves. But we’ll talk about that later. 

Attract rescuers

Any eye used to seeing a boat trip on a river or lake will immediately catch the silhouette of a boating accident. When they do, any rescuers who are launched will go straight for the boat. It’s the biggest thing they see.

If you want to be seen by the rescuers, it’s not enough to wear brightly-colored clothes or to call out. There might be other brightly-colored debris, and sound is hard to judge in the open air. But if you are near the capsized vessel, when they approach, they will see you as well. Use whatever you can (lights, speaker) to send a distress signal out. 

#2: Think flotation, not swimming

If you focus on treading water, you will tire yourself out unnecessarily. After the incident, focus on your own flotation device first. If you are not wearing a life vest, rest on an empty water cooler, stuff empty soda cans under your jacket or shirt, or find any other floating object from the capsized boat to rest on.

After stabilizing your own position, you can now help others. Push other floating debris or flotation devices towards your companions. See that everyone you can help is stabilized. Encourage them to float instead of swimming or moving around, to conserve energy.

#3: Reduce exposure

The Coast Guard cautions boaters that it is difficult to survive 50-degree water, if you are submerged in it for 4 hours or more. Even if the water is warmer by 20 degrees, 4 or more hours is still dangerous. The colder you all are, the less likely you can help yourselves or respond to rescuers. Survival time is crucial when hypothermia is involved.

If the boat hull is big enough, or there are few enough of you, try to climb on the upside down boat’s hull and huddle together. If the boat hull is not big enough, or there are too many of you, huddle close to one another. Your body heat, multiplied by the clustering, will fight off hypothermia caused by the cold water. 

#4: Avoid getting tangled in the boat lines

If your stay in the water takes any longer, as people get a little tired, if you are using sailboats you might be tempted to hold onto the boat lines or even tie your flotation device to them. However, that might prove too dangerous.

The boat has its own weight and pull, especially since it’s not under human steering. If it turns suddenly, bumps into something, or begins to sink, you might not be able to release yourselves soon enough. Knowing what to do when your boat capsizes will help you avoid this scenario.

#5: Turn your vessel right-side-up

If there are rescuers nearby, or a dock you will soon pass with Coast Guard presence, you don’t need to turn your vessel right-side-up. The capsized presence will attract rescuers. As long as you are not in particular danger of hypothermia, and everyone is floating properly, leaving your vessel with a capsized or overturned hull should not be dangerous.

When, then, should you focus on turning the vessel right-side-up?

When hypothermia is a definite danger

You might be far enough from rescuers that you will spend an extensive time in the water. Or, the water might be cold enough that the risk of hypothermia is high. You would need everyone out of the water as soon as possible. If you can’t all fit on the hull above water level, turning the vessel right-side-up is your next option.

When there is immediate danger from water creatures

If the boat is your only protection from water-based predators, you would definitely need it upright and sailing. You could also climb on the hull, if you wanted to and were few enough. But once on the hull, you are also in a good position to right the boat and then reboard the upright vessel.

How can you turn the vessel right-side-up? 

This would actually take practice, at least with a rubber dinghy or small boat.


  • Find your way onto the hull. If the boat is lying on its side, position yourselves near the bottom. If it is an overturned boat, position yourselves near one side.
  • Pull on the opposite side. If there are ropes, so much the better. While staying near the bottom or one side, grip the opposite side. Slowly and all together, lean back and straighten your legs. 
  • Fall back into the water. You are a counterweight, swinging to balance the pull of the water on the boat. When it breaks free, let your deadweight swing back into the water and the pressure will be released. The boat should be upright. (But this is why it takes practice!)


  • Push the rim up from the water. It probably won’t work. You don’t have enough leverage, and you won’t be able to create enough motor power with your legs.  
  • Try to flip it up from under the boat. The vacuum created by the rim of the boat and the water will make that attempt even more futile.

Other tips for what to do when your boat capsizes

Keep your footwear on! If you attract any water creatures, or run into a shallower portion of the lake or river, you will want that protection.

If the boat has already lost balance and is capsizing and you are on the open deck, it’s safer to be in the water and creating space between yourself and the boat. The initial vacuum created by the boat hitting the water might pull you down. Return to its side when it has stabilized.

Make sure your baby’s infant life jacket has these safety features:

  • A grab strap
  • Inherent buoyancy
  • Bright colors
Stearns 2020

As long as you can easily keep your baby near you, you don’t need to worry about their flotation, and you can easily find them through their life jacket, you can keep the danger to your child at a minimum even with a capsized boat. 

(You can learn more about the necessary safety features of infant life jackets on our home page.)