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PA Boating Handbook
Capsizing & Falls Overboard
If a small, open boat capsizes, everyone should take a head count, check for injury and stay with the boat. Most small boats have enough flotation to keep them from sinking. If possible, the boat should be turned upright and the water bailed out. It can then be paddled to shore. It is also possible to paddle a swamped boat to shore. The golden rule if a boat capsizes is for everyone to stay with the boat.


If you do capsize or swamp the boat, stay with the boat and make sure everyone has a life jacket. Stay calm. If the boat can be righted, bail out as much water as possible, get in and paddle towards shore. If your boat capsizes or you fall overboard in moving water such as a river, get in the self-rescue position with your feet pointed downstream and near the surface to avoid potential head injury and foot entrapment.


Falls overboard are dangerous situations. People fall overboard even when wind and seas are calm. The shock of falling into the water–especially cold water, can be life-threatening. Wearing a life jacket can be your only source of survival. The best means of survival is to already have a life jacket on and stay with the boat.


  • When getting into or moving around in a small boat, always maintain three points of contact, keeping your weight low and close to the centerline. Don’t overload your boat.
  • Do not allow passengers to stand in small boats or sit on foredecks, gunwales, engine boxes, seat backs or transoms.
  • Watch crew members and frequently check that everyone is aboard.
  • Wear deck-gripping shoes (bare feet have poor traction).
  • Avoid rough water and weather conditions whenever possible.
  • Practice a procedure for recovering someone lost overboard. Toss a life jacket over the side while moving. Test to see how long it takes to stop the boat, turn and retrieve the life jacket.
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