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U.S. Coast accident statistics show that capsizing and falls overboard are the leading causes of recreational boating fatalities.

Small open boats can be unstable and tippy. Be sure that the boat is tied securely to the dock when boarding and step into the centerline of the boat running fore and aft. With a hand on the pier and one on the boat, lower yourself down into the center. Although not required, you should wear a PFD. All other passengers should follow suit and keep low when moving around in the boat.

You should not attempt to carry items aboard the boat. You should board first and load them one at a time and, again, place them along the centerline of the boat.  Read and take heed of the capacity plate information. Make sure all passengers and carry-on items are secure and the weight evenly distributed. Maintain 3 points of contact with the boat at all times.

Once underway, avoid standing up, riding on the bow or gunwale (side) of the boat, trim the boat so it rides level and avoid making sudden sharp turns.


The majority of small pleasure boats, and all built after 1978, have floatation to keep them from sinking even if they capsize.

If you should capsize, it may be safer to stay with the floating boat than try to swim to shore. Staying with the boat also provides an easier object for rescuers to see.

  • Capsizing is when a vessel is either on its side or turned completely over.
  • Swamping is when the boat is upright but filled with water.

A small, unstable, tippy boat may capsize from the following causes:

  • Overloading slows a boat down and reduces the amount of freeboard (area above the waterline). A low freeboard increases the possibility of swamping the boat or taking on water, which will slow the boat even more. 
  • Don’t overload your boat with passengers or equipment.
  • Improper weight distribution can make the boat even more unstable. You must locate persons and equipment in order to balance the boat and keep water out.
  • Waves can be a major factor in capsizing, especially if they are unexpected. Anticipate all waves and aim the bow into them. 
  • Anchoring from the stern could also cause the boat to swamp or capsize. A proper method for lowering an anchor is from the bow. 

Should your boat capsize, take a head count to make sure everyone is there, don life jackets, check for injuries and stay with the boat.

If your life jackets (PFDs) have floated out of range, you can use anything available to keep afloat until you can reach the boat. This might include ice chests, empty soda bottles, etc.

You should conserve energy but begin to signal for help using available equipment such as visual distress signals, horn, mirror, etc.

If you can, turn the boat upright and bail it out. Once most of the water is out, climb back in. Or, if close to shore, just climb in the boat and paddle. 

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