How to Survive a Capsized Boat | Step By Step Guide

As we’ve talked about this topic in our previous article, sailboats are prone to capsizing. They’re not the only ones, though. Even mighty boats such as pontoons can capsize, although it doesn’t occur often. If the worst does happen and you end up capsized on your boat, what do you do? How do you survive?

Here are the 7 most important steps you can undertake to survive a capsized boat:

  1. Wear a life jacket that fits you or use a life raft
  2. Find everyone in your group who were on board
  3. Don’t waste extra energy, as you’ll need it later
  4. Try to get back on the boat if possible
  5. Otherwise, grab the boat or anything else that floats and hang on
  6. If you’ve lost the boat or have nothing to grab, float (treading water wastes energy and can induce hypothermia faster than floating)
  7. Wait until help arrives 

In this extensive guide, we will walk you through each of the above steps, explaining in precise detail what you need to do when capsized. Although capsizing can be a terrifying ordeal to endure, by remembering these steps, you can increase your chances of survival. 

Surviving a Capsized Boat: What to Do Step by Step

Step 1: Always Have a Life Jacket That Fits You

In many parts of the world, a Coast Guard mandates that you carry some sort of life-saving device onboard your boat, be that a life jacket or a life raft. Both can come in handy when you’re capsized, as you can rely on them to float. 

That’s why life jackets are often referred to as personal flotation devices. According to boating resource BoatUS, most people who drown in boating incidents (a staggering 90 percent) forewent life jackets. 

Please do not do the same. Whether you’re embarking on a leisurely day of sailing or an overnight boat trip, if there’s one thing you forget, don’t let it be your personal flotation device. You could prefer life jackets or life rafts, but you must have one for each passenger you have onboard. 

If you’re buying a life jacket for the first time, here are a few things to know. You should only choose jackets with approval through the Coast Guard. If you have kids you’re bringing on the boat and they’re 13 years old or younger, it’s mandatory they use a life jacket. The only exceptions would be if they spend all their time in a cabin or under-deck.

Life jackets are rated Types I through V. Each is designed for specific activities, from more relaxed boating to whitewater rafting and other more strenuous events. You want to make sure you get a life jacket appropriately rated to what you plan on doing in the water.

Also important is the fit of your life jacket. It should be snug to your body, but not so tight that it obstructs your range of motion. If the jacket is so loose that you have to keep readjusting it, that’s bad, too. It’s ill-fitting and you need a smaller one. 

You don’t necessarily have to wear your life jacket every minute you spend on your boat. You do want to know exactly where you keep the life jackets or life vests though so you can quickly access them when needed. 

Step 2: Make Sure All Your Passengers Are Accounted For

Next, you want to assess the state of your passengers. Obviously, if you’ve traveled on your boat alone, then you can skip this step, as it doesn’t apply. 

You must find all your passengers. They may be around the boat or possibly trapped beneath it. If so, then you’re going to want to do your best to free these passengers. If all your passengers have a life jacket or a life raft, then they should be floating in the water and easily visible. 

Depending on the size of your boat, you may have to venture throughout the entire vessel to track everyone down. Once you do find all your passengers, try to keep everyone close so no one gets lost. 

Step 3: Save Energy When Possible & Avoid Panicking

Okay, so you gathered everyone in your group, but now the reality of the situation is beginning to set in. You’ve fallen off your boat and you’re stuck in the water. How are you going to get back home? What if night falls and you’re still in the freezing cold water? You have no food or potable water, how will you survive?

It’s completely natural for those thoughts to course through your mind, and it’s understandable, too. The worst thing you can do right now is begin flailing about, making a big commotion, or panic. Yes, you’re terrified, and that’s alright. You also want to survive, and that means making careful, concerted decisions from this point forward. 

You want to maintain your energy as best you can. Encourage your passengers to do the same. The nervous energy between you all will be palpable. Using that energy the right way can get you out of this situation. 

Step 4: Attempt Righting the Boat or Getting on It 

Now it’s time to start being proactive. With your group all still together, check out the condition of your boat. 

Some boats are self-righting. This means that, when capsizing occurs, the boat has the capacity to turn itself upright again. If your boat is self-righting, then it’s only a matter of getting back on the boat. 

If you don’t happen to have a self-righting boat, that’s okay. You may be able to right the boat through the collective efforts of yourself and your passengers. Even that’s not a guarantee, though. If you have a bigger boat like a pontoon, then forget it, as it’s probably not going to happen. There’s also the added fact that you and the others are in the water without strong footing. The boat is wet, you’re wet, and you’re cold and panicked, too. Combining those factors can make it impossible in some instances to right your boat.

We recommend trying to push the boat upright once, maybe twice if you had marginal success the first time. If you truly can’t do it, that’s fine. Let it go. It doesn’t mean you’re stuck out here forever. 

If you found you could push the boat back upright, then you slowly want to board again. The boat may be waterlogged and unusable or the motor may work okay. If it does, then you can navigate home. If the boat is upright but won’t run, you have to wait for help. Of course, some boats don’t have motors, and with those, you could always paddle back to the shoreline if you’re able.

If you can’t get your boat upright, you still want to get on it as best you can. Yes, the boat may be sideways or even upside down, but the main goal is getting you and your passengers out of the water. If you can sit on the boat, even if it’s on its side or upside down, that’s ideal. 

You want to take your time climbing up on the boat, especially if it’s upside down. It will have a lot of rounded, curvy surfaces that aren’t conducive to climbing. That’s doubly true when you consider you and the boat are wet. In some instances, it’s not always possible to climb atop your boat. Again, try once or twice. If it’s not happening, move on. You can’t waste all your energy on climbing. 

Step 5: Hold onto What Floats

Okay, so you’re stuck in the water. That’s not ideal, but it’s your current situation anyway. You still want to keep your group together as you plan for what’s next. You also want to save up your energy. 

Then make sure you and everyone else hold onto a part of the boat. This should float even with your weight gripping onto it. If you can find any debris or items that float, you can use these as well. 

An upside-down or sideways boat is a pretty obvious sight. When a boater passes you by, they can quickly tell something is wrong. They’ll then alert the Coast Guard or another boating authority who can get you help. 

Sometimes this can take hours. It’s unfortunate and terrifying, but you still don’t want to panic or waste your energy while you wait for rescue. Do your best to stay calm and remind your passengers to do the same. 

Step 6: Float Instead of Tread Water

In the next section, we’ll talk about what to do if your boat gets away from you, which sometimes does happen. If you find yourself without a boat after a capsizing incident, here’s where your life jacket or life raft will really come in handy. The same is true if you can’t climb the boat for any reason. 

You’re going to want to simply float in the water. Get into the HELP pose if you can, which stands for the heat escape lessening position. With this, you pull your knees up to your chest and brace them with both hands interlinked. You’ll trap in more body heat keeping yourself like this. 

The flotation of your life jacket or life raft will support you and prevent you from sinking. Since you can sometimes bob along in the water without realizing, do make sure you and your fellow passengers stay close. If someone drifts out of your line of sight, bring them back nearer.

You may wonder if you should tread water instead of float. After all, you’re quite cold. That’s due to the density of water, which is more so than air. That means that, compared to being on land, your body heat depletes much more quickly, 20 times more. 

Okay, so wouldn’t treading water warm you up and replenish some of that lost body heat? It’s a good thought, but not exactly. According to the United States Power Squadrons COMPASS, when you tread water or even swim, you don’t warm your body up. Instead, you get colder up to 35 percent quicker than you would have by just floating. That could put you and your passengers at an increased risk of getting hypothermia. 

How would you know if you or someone else has hypothermia? The symptoms include coordination loss, confusion, losing leg and arm usage, muscle spasms, violent shivering, and a blueish-gray skin color. 

Step 7: Wait for Help  

By this point, you’ve done all you can to maximize your odds of survival. We do want to encourage you again to get out of the water if possible. That’s to avoid hypothermia. 

The United States Power Squadrons COMPASS provided data describing how long it takes for hypothermia to set in when in the water. Here’s an overview:

Water Temperature °FApproximate Survival Time
80 °F Indefinate
70 – 80 °F 3h or more
60 – 70 °F 2 – 40 hours
50 – 60 °F 1 – 6   hours
40 – 50 °F 1 – 3    hours  
30 – 40 °F  30 -90 minutes
32.5 °F 15 – 45 minutes
  • If the water temperature is over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, then you’re not at risk of hypothermia.
  • If the water temperature is between 70 and 80 degrees, then you could survive up to three hours or much longer in warmer conditions.
  • If the water temperature is between 60 and 70 degrees, you could survive two to 40 hours.
  • If the water temperature is between 50 and 60 degrees, you could survive one to six hours.
  • If the water temperature is between 40 and 50 degrees, you could survive one to three hours.
  • If the water temperature is between 30 and 40 degrees, you could survive 30 to 90 minutes.
  • If the water temperature is 32.5 degrees, your survival time drops to 15 to 45 minutes.

Time is clearly of the essence here. If you have any ways to alert others of your presence, such as flares or loud noises (and these are still usable), now’s the time to bust them out. You could get rescued faster. 

What Do You Do If You Lose Your Boat? 

In the steps above, we assumed that your fallen boat was somewhere nearby. What if it isn’t because it sunk? Then what do you do? 

Once again, it’s crucial that you have either a life raft or a life jacket at the ready. You’ll have to float and hope another boater sees you, which will happen eventually. Avoid treading water or swimming unless you can see the shoreline. Even then, you have to be positive you can make it. If you feel too fatigued, you may want to wait a short while and then attempt swimming.

If the shoreline is nowhere in sight, then you’re left with floating and nothing more. Like you did in the steps above, make sure you keep all your passengers close by. You also all want to avoid panicking or expending energy needlessly. 

What Do You Do if Someone Falls Overboard but the Boat Doesn’t Capsize? 

In some instances, your boat might be fine, but a passenger falls overboard. How can you go about helping them? 

Remember, this isn’t a capsizing situation, so you’re not in the water. As the captain of the boat, you want to stop it immediately. If you can’t come to a complete stop, then slow the boat way down. 

Next, toss a life jacket or life vest to the passenger in the water. This way, they have something to grab onto and won’t sink. Now, angle the boat in such a way where the operator side faces the passenger. Toss a life buoy down. This should be connected to your buoyant heaving line. 

The passenger should grab on. You can then begin raising them up from the water and pulling them back onto the boat.

While it may seem smart to jump in for a direct rescue, you and the passenger both can end up stranded. Don’t do this!

Related Questions

Will a shark get you while you’re in the water when capsized?

If you’re stranded in the ocean, then you may worry about the threats that linger in the water. Namely, you’re concerned about sharks. While we can get where you’re coming from, you must keep in mind that sharks aren’t in every ocean. Even if they’re in yours, there’s no guarantee they’ll come up to you.

Sharks like the smell of blood. Bright, reflective surfaces can also attract them, as these look like fish scales glinting in the sunlight. Moving and splashing about and generally making a big commotion could also get a shark coming your way. 

If the possibility of sharks has you worried, then do your best to get out of the water after capsizing. If you lost your boat or can’t climb up, stay as still as possible. This is recommended to conserve your energy anyway. 

In which parts of your body do you lose heat the fastest?

As we explained in this article, the loss of body heat is what triggers the onset of hypothermia. You can lose body heat at an alarming rate, but it’s possible to slow it down somewhat. For instance, you can keep certain parts of your body above the waterline, such as your neck and head.

Besides those two areas, you also lose a lot of heat in the groin and sides of your body, but those may be submerged. At least remember the HELP pose to retain what body heat you have left. 


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

Recent Posts