Capsizing and swamping

Here's how to reduce the risks and what to do if your vessel capsizes or is swamped. Act quickly to keep everyone on board safe.

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Risk of capsizing or swamping

Capsizing and swamping can be caused by a number of situations, including big waves, overloading or damage to your vessel. Swamping is when your vessel fills with water, increasing the risk of sinking.

If you're in a small open powerboat or paddlecraft – such as a canoe or kayak – take extra care. These vessels can more easily capsize or be swamped.

If your vessel capsizes or is swamped, act quickly to keep yourself and anyone else on board safe.

What to do

If your vessel capsizes or is swamped:

  • Make sure everyone is wearing a lifejacket. Give one to passengers who are not already wearing one.
  • Use your marine radio, if it's working, to make a distress call.
  • If your vessel is swamped, try to empty the water with your bucket and bilge pump.
  • Stay with your capsized vessel – this makes it easier for rescuers to find you.
  • If it's safe to do so, get the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) and distress flares out of the vessel to alert search and rescue services.
  • Make yourself as visible as possible to other vessels and aircraft by displaying your orange PVC V sheet.
  • Put on more clothes if you can – this helps keep you warm and may delay or prevent hypothermia.
  • Abandon the vessel only as a last resort. Take the EPIRB and distress flares with you, if possible.

As the skipper, you’re responsible for making sure:

  • you have all the necessary safety equipment on board – including bucket, bilge pump, flares, V sheet and EPIRB
  • flares and distress signals are only used in an emergency.

Reduce the risk

  • Always wear a lifejacket. It can save your life if you end up in the water after capsizing or being swamped.
  • Make sure essential safety equipment – such as lifejackets, flares and an EPIRB – is easy to access in case you need to abandon the vessel quickly.
  • Never overload your vessel. Loading your vessel with people or gear beyond its capacity can make it unstable.
  • Never anchor a small boat, or a vessel not equipped for anchoring, by the stern. This can lead to swamping and flooding.
  • If crossing a coastal bar, plan ahead. You must wear a lifejacket and know how to handle your vessel. Even in calm conditions vessels can be swamped, damaged or wrecked on coastal bars.
  • Take extra care when travelling with a following sea – when the sea is moving in the same direction as your vessel. Your vessel can tip sideways, increasing the risk of swamping and capsizing.
  • Check your boat is fitted with appropriate internal buoyancy, such as airtight compartments or foam. This helps your boat stay afloat if it capsizes or is swamped.
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