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Dealing with an Accident


One type of accident that occurs more frequently than you may realize is capsizing. A boat is "capsized" when it is knocked down so it lies on its side in the water or turns over - a frequent occurrence among small sailboats that are especially sensitive to sudden changes in the wind. Most small boats will remain in that position, unless righted, and will float enough to support you.

Having capsized or swamped, it is important to remain calm and conserve energy. After the boat capsizes, you should immediately do a head count to make sure everyone is with the boat. The general rule is to ensure that all crew members are wearing PFDs and that they stay with the boat; there may be possibilities of righting it, and rescuers will be able to find you more easily. Leave the boat only if it is headed toward a hazard.

If you do lose the boat, try and use anything you can to help you stay above water. An empty cooler is a great floatation aid--even empty soda bottles stuffed in your jacket will help. The higher you are in the water, the easier it will be to find you. The easier it is for you to float, the easier it will be for you to conserve energy.

If the capsized boat is a small centerboard sailboat, improve your chances of recovery by trying to keep it from turning over. Get into the water immediately and stand of the centerboard, providing lever action; this is a technique taught in most basic sailing courses.

If possible, have a crew member attach a life jacket or other flotation device to the end of the mast. If you can, remove all sails before attempting to right the boat.

If you have lost your boat, or can't right it, your next step is to try and get help. Signaling for help takes a great deal of restraint--if you do too much you may tire yourself out, or run out of signals such as flares. Try and make sure that when you do signal, there is a good chance that someone will see or hear you. Having signal flares, smoke flares, whistles, or a horn (which you should have on your boat) are great, but if all you have is an upside down boat, the crew and you, your options are limited.

  • Take turns being the designated "signaler" who yells at a regular interval, or waves at passersby.
  • Try and make everyone as "big" as possible (put on what you can, pull floating debris near you, etc.), and try to contrast with the background by wearing light clothing (or vice versa)
  • If you do have appropriate signaling devices, use them when you think they will be seen or heard!

Getting rescued starts with letting people know where you are going, and when you should be back. Filing a float plan will ensure that people will be looking for you. Carrying proper signaling devices such as flares or smoke will help you get found--we've even heard of people painting the hull of their boat florescent orange to make it visible if they ever capsize. Even the clothes you wear can help you survive longer and get rescued faster.

Take precautions against swamping and capsizing: Watch that loaded items do not shift from side to side; guard against too much power or speed on turns, and the wash of large boats. Take waves head on, or fine on the bow, at low speeds, giving the hull a chance to ride over rather than dive into them.