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  • June 25, 2024

    If you find yourself in the water after capsizing, it’s common to be so disoriented that you lose your sense of up and down. But if you’re well-prepared for an incident on the water, you can turn a potential tragedy into a survival story. 

    When emergencies happen on my boat, people are often surprised by how quickly I react. It’s not the adrenaline rush or some unique-to-me talent — it’s that I took the time to think through how to handle possible scenarios long before I had to. 

    Preparedness significantly impacts your chances of survival in a boat flip scenario. So, let’s discuss the specifics of smaller vessels, what you need to know to respond to trouble optimally, and the safest way to float if your small craft capsizes.

    What Are Small Craft and Why Do They Capsize More Often?

    “Small craft” is a common maritime term that doesn’t actually have an official or legal definition. Rather, “small craft” is a relative term that depends on several variables, such as a boat’s purpose and where you sail it. I typically think of a small craft as any vessel less than 65 feet, though to some, a boat that big sounds like a yacht.

    Wherever you draw the line, a good rule of thumb is that the smaller the vessel, the more likely it is to be affected by turbulent conditions caused by high winds, rough seas, strong currents, or other environmental factors. This is because smaller craft are lighter and narrower, which gives them a lower stability profile. 

    Unevenly distributed weight, overloading, or improper positioning of equipment or passengers can all shift a small craft’s center of gravity, making it more prone to capsizing. For example, if you have six people crowded at the bow of a 14-foot Boston Whaler, there’s a good chance it will swamp if you go into a wave. But the same six people at the bow of a 65-foot boat will likely be just fine. 

    Small craft operators also tend to have less experience than professionals on larger vessels. Beginners sometimes think, “It’s only a 20-foot boat; I’m not going to hurt anybody,” only to find themselves in over their heads — literally. 

    That’s why prior knowledge of your boat’s capabilities and limitations is vital for safety on the water. Too, understanding safety protocols and how to handle potential incidents significantly improves your safety and the safety of others on board.

    How Do You Prepare a Small Craft for Trips?

    Wherever you’re boating, always prioritize safety. That means taking preparation seriously, following regulations, and verifying the condition of your vessel and equipment before you set out.

    Taking your boat out on a lake versus on the ocean requires significantly different types of preparation. Here are some key factors to keep in mind for each:

    Preparing for Lakes

    Start by familiarizing yourself with the lake’s layout, navigation markers, and potential hazards. In particular, pay close attention to the locations of shallow areas, submerged rocks, and underwater structures, as well as locks and dams. You’ll find important information about water depth and safe navigation routes in lake charts and maps.

    Your next consideration should be boat traffic. Lakes can get pretty busy, especially during peak seasons. It’s important to be aware of the local boating regulations, speed limits, and right-of-way rules to minimize the risk of collision.

    Finally, you need to know where to get help if you need it. Find out ahead of time where emergency services, marinas, and Coast Guard stations are located. There, you can also ask about reporting procedures for accidents, emergencies, and incidents on the lake.

    Preparing for the Ocean

    Ocean weather can be faster-changing and more unpredictable than lake weather, so always monitor marine weather forecasts. Forecasts will tell you what the wind, waves, tides, and potential storm systems look like, but it’s up to you to consider the impact of currents, swells, and tidal changes on your boating plans.

    While lakes are often line-of-sight, ocean navigation typically requires more sophisticated navigational skills and equipment. After familiarizing yourself with ocean navigational markers, make sure you have updated marine charts, a functioning GPS system, and other navigational aids to facilitate accurate positioning. 

    Ocean boating may require additional safety equipment compared to boating on a lake. For example, larger and more seaworthy vessels often need Emergency Position Radio Beacons (EPIRBs), radar reflectors, flares, and specialized communication devices, including a VHF radio. You and your passengers also need life-saving equipment like life jackets and/or personal flotation devices (PFDs).

    As on lakes, be aware of potential hazards in the ocean. These include strong currents, rip tides, reefs, and offshore hazards. Wildlife — including marine mammals and fish — also poses a potential risk. Be sure to respect their habitats to ensure both your safety and the preservation of the marine environment.

    What Are the Most Important Safety Checks for Small Craft?

    Before you set sail in a small craft, perform these must-do safety checks:

    • Check the weather: Look at the weather forecast so you’re aware of upcoming changes in conditions. If a storm is on the way, don’t go out on the water.
    • Inspect the vessel: Perform a thorough inspection of the boat, looking for any signs of damage, leaks, or regular wear and tear. Pay attention to the hull, rigging, sails, and engine.
    • Verify safety equipment: Double-check that all your safety equipment is on board and working properly. This includes life jackets or PFDs for everyone aboard, a throwable flotation device, a first-aid kit, fire extinguishers, distress signals, and an emergency communication device.
    • Inspect navigation and lighting systems: Make certain your navigation equipment, including your GPS and charts, are in good condition and that your lights are functioning and visible.
    • Check your power: Test your battery systems and ensure you have enough fuel for your planned journey. It’s important to physically check the fuel and use an instrument to check the battery, as salty air can impact the gauges.
    • Review local regulations: Make sure you know the speed limits, right-of-way rules, and other guidelines for the body of water you’re navigating.
    • Inform someone of your plans: Let someone know where you’re sailing and when you expect to get back. This way, if you don’t come back when you say you will, someone will notice and take action.

    How to Prevent Capsizing in a Small Craft

    Capsizing can often be prevented. We teach you how to avoid capsizing in Mariners Learning System courses in more depth, but here are some key tips to enhance your boating safety and reduce your risk of capsizing:

    Mind Your Weight

    One of the leading causes of capsizing for boats of all sizes is improper weight distribution. It’s imperative that you keep the weight of both passengers and cargo evenly distributed across the boat. This helps you maintain stability.

    At the same time, avoid exceeding the weight or passenger capacity recommended for your specific vessel. Overloading affects stability, which heightens the risk of capsizing, especially in rough waters.

    Maintain Situational Awareness

    Stay alert and aware of your surroundings so you can avoid potential hazards. Striking obstacles like rocks, reefs, sandbars, submerged objects, or even other boats can cause your boat to capsize.

    Maintaining awareness also includes keeping a close eye on the weather. Severe conditions like high winds and rough waves increase the risk of capsizing.

    Safe Navigation

    Stick to marked channels, and be sure to study how to use navigational aids. Understanding navigation buoys, markers, and charts will help you avoid shallow or hazardous areas.

    Be especially cautious during maneuvers. Take turns at a safe speed, as sharp or abrupt turns can lead to capsizing or sending people overboard.

    Infographic: The Safest Way to Float if Your Small Craft Capsizes

    The Safest Way to Float if Your Small Craft Capsizes

    Even the best possible preparation can’t guarantee your boat won’t turn turtle at some point. If you find yourself in the water, there are actions you can take to increase your chances of survival.

    First, stay calm and prepare to exit the vessel swiftly and safely. If you find yourself disoriented underwater, pause to take stock. Which way are the bubbles floating? Which direction looks brighter? Those indicate the direction of the surface.

    Once you’re on the surface, the safest way to float is to adopt the HELP position. HELP stands for Heat Escape Lessening Posture, and it’s a technique meant to preserve body heat while you’re waiting for rescue. Here are the steps to properly get yourself in the HELP position:

    1. Put on a lifejacket or PFD to provide buoyancy, which helps you maintain the proper position.
    2. Bring your knees to your chest, keeping them as close to your body as possible.
    3. Cross your arms over your chest or keep them close to your sides, holding onto your lifejacket or PFD. 
    4. Once you’re in position, stay still to conserve energy and minimize heat loss.

    If you’re in a group, it’s important to stay together, huddling as close to each other as possible. Not only does this make the water around you warmer, but it also increases visibility, so you’ll be easier to find and rescue.

    If you go off alone — even if you’re a great swimmer — you’ll die.

    Final Thoughts

    We never expect our boat to flip, but preparing for the unexpected is a core component of safe boating. If your craft does capsize, the right preparation and knowledge can make all the difference for you and your passengers.

    Interested in learning more about boating safety? Mariners courses are filled to the brim with useful, applicable information to keep you and your passengers safer on the water. Choose a course today!

    Quote: The Safest Way to Float if Your Small Craft Capsizes

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