Can a Sailboat Flip Over? How to Prevent It

You feel your sailboat is a seaworthy vessel, and it’s certainly never did anything to change your mind. Well, until the last time you went out for a day on the water.

It was a bit windy and you felt your sailboat sort of rocking. You admittedly got concerned. The whole experience has you wondering, can a sailboat flip over? How would you prevent such a thing?

So can a Sailboat Flip Over? Yes, sailboats can flip or roll over, which is also referred to as capsizing. To prevent this from happening, make sure you do the following:

  • Don’t ride your sailboat in inclement weather, including strong winds, rains, lightning, and thunder
  • Don’t attach your boat’s anchor line to the stern, but rather, the bow as you anchor your boat
  • Don’t turn too quickly
  • Keep people contained near the gunwale but not outside of it for boat stability and balance
  • Maintain a low center of gravity by asking everyone to stay seated for the sailboat ride 
  • Avoid weighing down your boat with too much cargo or too many passengers
  • Make sure all passengers avoid using the motor cover, seat backs, the bow, or the gunwale as a place to sit

In this article, we will tell you everything you need to know about your sailboat flipping over or capsizing. That includes what it is, why it happens, and what to do if your own boat flips. We’ll also expand on the above pointers for preventing a capsizing incident. 

What Is Sailboat Flipping?

Sailboat flipping or rolling is more commonly referred to as capsizing. Any boat can capsize, but sailboats often have a higher chance of doing so. Why is that? Well, just look at the design of a sailboat. 

In bigger boats, the keel is heavier to create more balance and make this vessel harder to capsize. Could it still happen? Sure, but it’s not nearly as likely. If you own a smaller sailboat, then the keel is similarly sized and weighted, meaning it’s small, too.

Otherwise, your boat would be all lopsided. A smaller, weaker keel cannot withstand as much force as a bigger sailboat’s keel could. Therefore, all it takes is a strong wind and your boat could tip. 

Then you have to think about what happens you when you heel your sailboat. This already leans you strongly at one angle, either left or right. Again, on a particularly windy day, it wouldn’t take much from there to push you over.

Let’s rewind for a moment and define what capsizing is for clarity’s sake. Also referred to as keeling over, flipping over, or rolling over, capsizing is when your boat loses its balance in the water. It may tip to one side and fall there. In some instances, the boat could even flip upside down. 

For small vessels, a boat that’s turned completely upside down or inverted is referred to as a turn turtle. While the name might be amusing, if you capsize or turtle, you need to do what you can immediately to turn your sailboat back over. Lives are at stake, after all. The process of correcting the turn-over, called righting, is something you should learn. 

How Is It Caused?

Okay, now that you understand a bit more about capsizing, let’s talk about the factors that could cause your sailboat to flip over and even turtle on the water, shall we? 

Improper Heeling

A lot of capsizing incidents could be avoided by learning proper boating techniques. In sailing, you will heel, or angle your boat left or right, typically to turn or do other maneuvers such as tacking or jibing. As we said in the last section, this already puts you in a pretty vulnerable predicament, because you’re practically tipping your boat over yourself. 

You may capsize the first few times you go out on your sailboat and learn how to heel. It’s almost expected of you as a small boat owner. By practicing your heeling and following the other advice in this section (and the rest of this article), you’ll feel more confident in your abilities and exert more control over the boat. That in turn makes you less likely to capsize. 

Inclement Weather

When you go boating, we assume you’re choosing a temperate day in which to do so. It can be sunny or even a little bit overcast, but one thing you don’t want? A lot of wind. Wind is the natural enemy of any boater, and that goes for hulking vessels like pontoon boats to smaller ones like your sailboat. 

It’s true that sailboats need a little wind, but it’s important to distinguish between a nice breeze and gusts that are pushing 15 miles per hour. 

When the weather gets too windy, controlling your boat becomes that much harder to do. You can’t predict what will happen with the weather, which puts you at a greater risk of capsizing. Now, riding with the wind is your best bet in such a situation rather than trying to fight it. Anytime you attempt to fight the wind, trust us when we say you’ll lose in your sailboat. There’s no getting around it.

So yes, it’s possible to ride with the wind on a particularly blustery day, but that doesn’t mean you should want to. The best means of surviving a windy day on your boat is to avoid going out in one in the first place. 

Inclement weather includes more than just wind, of course. Rain and thunderstorms also count. This kind of weather brings with it choppy waters, strong winds, and pelting rains that impede visibility. If you try to ride in such conditions, capsizing is all but a guarantee, and it may even happen more than once. 

It’s crucial you check the weather forecast ahead of time for the day you plan on riding your sailboat. Then, the day of, make sure you look at the weather one more time so you can confirm the forecast didn’t change. If you can, use an app for this, and make sure you review the hourly predictions so you know your entire day is clear.

If there’s a 50 or 60 percent chance of rain or strong winds for the day, it’s better to postpone your ride for a clearer, brighter day. There are always other opportunities. 

Boat Leaks

Sailboats are relatively durable, sure, but that doesn’t mean their parts hold up forever. Fittings and other seams and seals can slowly degrade, allowing water to get into the boat. Sometimes it seeps into compartments you can’t easily access and other times it’s more overt, covering the floor of your sailboat.

Both situations are no good. A boat that’s flooding or leaking will fill with water, getting weighed down as it does. What happens when you throw a rock in a lake? It sinks straight to the bottom. Your boat becomes like that rock, getting pulled under. 

Hopefully, you can detect a leak before it ever gets to the point where your boat is unrecoverable. Once you notice something’s gone wrong, you want to get your sailboat to land. Then, when you’re out of danger, you can assess the severity of the leak. You may find you can patch it up yourself or you might want to let a professional take care of it.

In the future, buy boats with high-quality fittings, such as bronze or stainless steel. They should hold up better than the cheap ones that may have come with your boat originally. 

Too Much Weight Onboard

We told you before that a chief reason for capsizing is user error, and we weren’t kidding. Every boat, from a single-person canoe to a large pontoon boat and full sized sailboats, has what’s called a weight capacity. They have to, or else you wouldn’t know how much weight you could safely stow aboard your vessel.

Sometimes you have to look on the manufacturer’s website and other times you’ll need to read through the owner’s manual to figure out exactly what your boat’s weight limit is. Once you know, it’s crucial you follow that limit down to the letter. If you don’t and you bring too much cargo or one too many passengers, guess what will happen? You’re probably going to capsize.

Why? The boat can’t handle the extra weight. Also, more than likely, you didn’t distribute the weight evenly. If you have cargo all clustered in one corner or your passengers sitting to one side, that side of the boat now has a lot more weight than the other. When you maneuver your sailboat, you’ll feel like you’re heeling even though you’re not. The heavier side will lean closer to the water and could even slip right in, flipping you over.  

Going Too Fast 

Yet another user error mistake that can capsize your sailboat is speeding. Look, sailboats aren’t particularly quick vessels. Their cruising speed hovers somewhere around 12 MPH. Others can only traverse the water at 8 MPH. You’re not going to win any boat races in a sailboat, but that’s okay. If you wanted to do that, you’d get a deck boat. Sailboats are meant for leisurely experiences.

Pushing your sailboat to the limits of its speed will almost always result in you getting turned over or rolling the boat on its side. You become too unstable taking tight turns at a higher speed. It’s much better to go slow. 

Modifying Your Sailboat 

If your sailboat’s warranty already expired or you never had one to begin with, then you might have felt the itch to modify the boat. You thought you added some cool design flourishes or made it more functional in another way, but did you consider the sailboat’s stability in the process? 

By tinkering too much, your boat can become unstable on the water and thus dangerous to use. You should probably contemplate undoing whatever changes you made or you will run a higher risk of capsizing when you use the boat.

How to Avoid Flipping Your Sailboat Over

You’re right in wanting to avoid capsizing your sailboat. To that end, make sure you follow the advice we present in this section. 

Avoid Inclement Weather

As we discussed earlier in the article, strong winds, rough waves, and heavy rains are not great riding conditions for your sailboat. Use a weather app or watch the TV news to get a feel for the forecast and then make smart choices. 

Know How to Anchor Your Boat

When you go to anchor your sailboat, you want to make sure you connect the anchor line properly. Avoid attaching it to your sailboat’s stern. Instead, you want to tie the line to your bow. This setup will provide the most stability for your sailboat, keeping it from tipping over while anchored. 

Don’t Rush Your Turns

We also mentioned how trying to speed up in a sailboat is not only difficult (since they only go about 12 MPH at most), but a dangerous choice, too. Whether through inexperience, nervousness, or a curiosity to push the limits, don’t try to see what your boat can do by speeding up when turning. You’ll end up turtled or rolled over. 

Don’t Let Passengers Get Too Close to the Gunwale

Your sailboat’s gunwale is the upper edge along the boat’s sides. If that doesn’t sound like a great place to have people sit or rest, that’s because it’s not. If your passengers’ shoulders extend past the gunwale, then you’re already putting your boat’s stability at risk. 

Keep a Low Center of Gravity

To maintain your center of gravity and keep it low, ensure that once the boat is in motion that no one moves, even to stand up. Double-check, even triple-check with your passengers that they’re all good before you set sail. From there, remind everyone that they have to stay where they are for the duration of the ride. 

Don’t Let Passengers Sit Anywhere Else but in Seats/Chairs

Where your passengers sit matters, too. Once you’re past idle speed, no one should sit on the pedestal seats. You also want to avoid having your passengers use the motor cover, seat backs, bow, or gunwale as makeshift chairs. None of these are meant for people sit on. Not only can your passengers potentially break these boat parts, but this puts a lot of extra weight on the sailboat, disturbing the weight balance. 

Which Boats Are Most Likely to Capsize?

According to boating resource BoatUS, the smaller your boat is, the higher the risk it’s at of capsizing. They mention that boats between 15 and 19 feet have a 41 percent chance of tipping over. Slightly bigger boats 20 to 24 feet will capsize 26 percent of the time.

If your boat is more than 25 feet, you have an 18-percent chance of capsizing, the lowest risk. 

So, if you’re sailing a dinghy of  8-10 feet, you will have a significantly higher risk of capsizing compared to bigger sailboats. We know that capsizing a dinghy is not causing much damage but still it is not a welcoming experience.

However, when for example a 38 feet sailboat tips over, this will definitely put a lot of strain on the rigging and mast and generally it causes a lot of damage to the boat.

Sailboats that have fixed keels are less prone to capsizing in the wild waters. This is because the keel hold the ballast that keeps the boat right-side-up and provide stability to it. And therefore it minimizes the risk of the boat’s capsizing. Even if a boat with fixed keel do tip over, the keel will forces the boat to right itself again.

What to Do When You Capsize

Okay, so the worst just happened and you capsized. Now what? 

Well, first off, you want to check yourself. Are you injured? Has a part of the boat fallen on you, preventing you from moving? If you’re free to get away, then you want to look for the rest of your passengers. 

Do you see them all close by or is someone missing? If so, you need to look for them. If everyone wears life vests, then finding passengers shouldn’t prove too hard. 

Once you have everyone safe and sound, next, you want to address your sailboat. It may have just tipped over on its side. In that case, try to access it by climbing up on it. If you and a few other passengers can upright the boat, then do it. Some boats can right themselves, they have a so called self-righting keel which really comes in handy when capsized. 

If the boat has turned completely over, you probably can’t roll it back upright when you’re in the water. You’ll want to wait until you feel ready and able to swim to shore. If that’s not possible, try to get on the boat so you’re out of the water. Then, flag down help. Otherwise, make sure you float, as this can lessen your chances of getting hypothermia compared to treading water. 

Related Questions 

Can sailboats move without wind?

It depends, but most of the time, sailboat cannot move without some force from wind. Traditional ones can’t, at least. If your sailboat has oars, then you can push it along at your own pace and speed. Others have motors on the propeller that allow a sailboat to hit the water without even so much as a slight breeze. 

Can large sailboats capsize?

While the BoatUS data proves that bigger boats have a lower likelihood of capsizing, no boat is capsize-proof. That includes large sailboats. Since they still lean or heel, water can get onto the boat’s deck. The force of the heel could also tip the boat. 

Should your passengers on a sailboat wear a life vest?

Yes, you definitely shouldn’t forego life vests just because you’re riding in a sailboat. It doesn’t matter what kind of boat you’re on, life vests are always a great idea. They can save your life, especially if you capsize, so they’re not something to skip.  


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

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