Can You Recover a Capsized Boat?

Tips for Recovering a Capsized Boat

If your sailboat capsizes, you may be in a position to recover it. In fact, capsizing is considered a normal element of dinghy sailing – and you’ll need to be proficient in capsize recovery if you want an official rating.

What Is Capsizing?

First, the basics. Capsizing refers to a boat or ship rolling onto its side (or completely rolling to become upside-down) in the water. This is usually a result of some external force, such as a powerful wave, an unexpected wind, or a dangerous manoeuvre. Capsizing can also occur due to sudden loss of stability – which can happen because of shifting cargo or turning too quickly.

In some cases, a boat can recover from capsizing on its own – but this requires the vessel to have adequate floatation to prevent sinking. It also requires supportive conditions; further waves and winds can make this impossible.

Capsize Recovery: The Scoop Method

Sailboats typically capsize away from the wind (leeward) because of the force of the wind. If you’re not able to hike or let out the sails, the wind can become strong enough to push the vessel on its side.

When the sails are near or in the water, you’ll need to act quickly to recover. In the scoop method, you’ll “scoop” a crew member into the cockpit while the other crew member works to right the boat.

The scooped person needs to take the following actions:

  • Tread water. First, you’ll need to tread water near the stern of the boat until the scooper has gained control of the centreboard.
  • Move to the centreboard trunk. Once there, you can free the mainsheet, jib sheets, and boom vang (to the extent you’re able to do this). You may need to help the scooper by throwing the windward jib sheet over the high side. This will assist the scooper in getting on top of the board.
  • Maintain your hold. Hold onto the cockpit structure tightly as the boat begins to turn upright.
  • Balance and steer. Try to keep the vessel as balanced as possible and steer it into a safe position.
  • Assist the scooper. At this point, you should start helping the scooper get onboard.

The scooper needs to do the following:

  • Move to the centreboard. Get to the centreboard quickly.
  • Climb onto the board. Don’t put too much pressure on the tip of the board; otherwise, you could do some serious damage.
  • Right the ship. When you’re onboard and the scooped person is ready for the next step, put your feed on the end of the board, right where it connects to the hull. When ready, grab onto something for leverage and lean back, using your body weight to “pull” the boat upright.
  • Swim to stern and climb back on. After the boat is righted, you’ll end up in the water, so swim to the stern and climb back on.

Capsize Recovery: An Approach for Single-Handed Boats

So what if you’re on a single-handed boat?

You’ll need to take the following steps:

  • Get into the water. If the boat has capsized completely, you’re probably already there.
  • Uncleat the main sheet and boom vang. Make adjustments if necessary.
  • Adjust so the sail is leeward. In most cases, the mainsail will naturally be leeward, facing away from the wind. If this isn’t the case, you’ll need to rotate the boat so the mainsail is leeward. If you’re unable to rotate the vessel in the water, you can try to stand the sail upright so that it capsizes the boat in the opposite direction.
  • Guide the boat upright. Move to the centreboard and climb onto it. While still holding the gunwale, lean back and use your bodyweight to pull the sailboat back up.
  • Climb in. With the sailboat righted, climb in over stern.

Additional Tips for Capsize Recovery

Follow these additional tips for your own safety:

  • Watch the weather before heading out. Before heading out on any sailing expedition, take a close look at the weather forecast. Excessively windy conditions should give you pause, and you should never head out in the middle of a storm.
  • Wear a lifejacket. No matter how experienced you are or how confident you are in the water, it's a good idea to wear a lifejacket. This is arguably the most important piece of safety equipment you'll have on your vessel, since it can keep you afloat on the water indefinitely. If your boat capsizes, you'll be able to quickly get yourself into a position to right it. And if you're not able to recover your capsized boat, you can at least survive long enough to be rescued.
  • Avoid entangling yourself. As the boat begins to capsize, exercise caution to avoid entangling yourself. If you get caught in ropes, sails, or other components of your vessel, it could render you unable to recover the boat, or worse, it could put your life in danger.
  • Reduce weight. Some sailors instinctively try to stay on the vessel as long as possible to weigh it down, but once the boat has begun capsizing, you should avoid putting too much weight on it. In fact, with too many people in or on the boat, the vessel could end up turtling, making it almost impossible to smoothly recover from capsizing and potentially damaging the boat in the process.
  • Stay close to the boat. In windy conditions, a boat will drift away faster than you can swim to it. Accordingly, you should try to stay as close to the boat as you can.
  • Know when to radio for help. In an emergency situation, be prepared to radio or signal for help.

Are you looking for a new sailboat you can call your own? Or are you ready to finally start the sailing hobby you've always wanted? Either way, you'll want to check out our selection of sailboats for sale. We have new and used vessels from across the United States and Europe available for your perusal – take a look and see what we have to offer!

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