Can Yachts (& Big Sailboats) Tip Over Or Sink? 15 Facts To Know

Before buying a boat people often think about the dangers of doing so.  This leads them to think about whether or not their boat might sink og tip over (capsize).

Yachts are often quite large so potential yacht owners are especially prone to considering this issue.

So, can yachts tip over or sink?
Yachts can tip over and they can sink just like any other types of boats. However, some yachts can capsize and sink more easily than others. The size of the yacht and the draft plays an important role when it comes to capsizing.

Let’s talk about exactly how and when yachts may capsize and sink.

We’ll also talk about what you can do if you’re unfortunate enough to be on a yacht that has capsized or sunk.

Capsizing – How it Happens For A Yacht

There are a few different factors that will determine whether or not a yacht capsizes.

The main three factors are:

  1. The amount of force placed on the sail
  2. The center of gravity of the boat
  3. Whether or not waves are approached correctly.

1) Too Much Force on The Sail

A sailing yacht has large sails that are meant to take a great amount of force without being destroyed.  These massive sails provide the power a yacht owner needs to move their large vessel.

In most cases, the force of the wind upon the sail will lead to some heeling.  The amount of heeling that the boat undergoes will depend on how skillfully the boat is sailed, the amount of wind being applied to the sail, and the build quality of the boat.

Knockdowns Vs. Capsizing

When too much force is applied to the sail, the boat’s heeling motion will usually compensate for this and the wind will run over the sail.

However, in extreme cases, the boat may heel too far and too fast and the sailboat will be knocked down.

A knockdown is different from a capsize in that the boat falls on its side but does not flip completely over. 

Knockdowns aren’t as bad as a capsize because the boat is usually still functional after a knockdown.  However, a knockdown is still dangerous because the boat’s passengers can fall into the water.

If all of the boat’s passengers fall into the water, there will be nobody left in the boat to pick them up.

Sometimes a knockdown is so extreme that it turns into a capsize.

This is when the boat is completely flipped over.  In this case, every passenger above deck will be thrown into the water and the passengers inside will have to get out of the boat or hope that the boat rights itself quickly.

In many cases, a boat monohull boat will right itself after capsizing.  This is because the boat should be designed with capsizing in mind.  Boats with more than one hull will not right themselves after capsizing, but we’ll discuss that in more detail further along in this article.

2) Poor Center of Gravity

One aspect of a yacht that will determine its susceptibility to capsizing is its center of gravity.  A yacht with a poor center of gravity is much more likely to capsize than a yacht with a superior center of gravity.

In all likelihood, the yacht you buy will have a great center of gravity.

This is especially true if you’ve purchased a Category A boat with a deep V that is meant for navigating rough waters.

A ballast tank will usually be built into the hull of the boat.  This tank lets water into the hull to add weight to it.

In addition to the ballast tank, some boats will have weights that are used as ballasts.  These weights are made of lead and can be used with or without the presence of a ballast tank.

3) Weight Distribution Plays An Important Role

Improper loading of a yacht can lead to poor weight distribution.  Poor weight distribution throws off the boat’s center of gravity and increases the chances that the boat will capsize.

For this reason, it’s important that yacht owners know how much weight their boat can hold so that they do not overload it. 

It’s also important that the weight that is added to the boat is evenly distributed throughout the boat.

The yacht owner may also want to consider putting heavier items down low as too much weight at the top of the boat can also lead to improper weight distribution.

4) Strong Waves Approached Incorrectly

Motor yachts and sailing yachts are both impacted by incoming waves.  A wave must be approached correctly or it could easily knock down or capsize a boat.  The smaller the boat, the more important it is that the boat approaches the wave correctly.

In fact, according to Boat U.S. Magazine, when a breaking wave of equal or greater height than a boat hits the boat from the beam side, it will always roll it at least 130 degrees past parallel.

How to Approach (Big) Waves In A Yacht

A yacht, or any other boat for that matter, should approach waves at the bow or stern side.

This keeps the boat more stable and allows it to work with the wave rather than against it.

Ideally, you’ll take the waves at the bow but if it is a choice between the stern and the beam, you’ll always want to choose the beam.

This is important in order to ride the wave correctly. Otherwise you will not be in full control and you might end up taking in water or eventually experience tipping over.

Some Types of Yachts Capsize (And Sink) More Easily Than Others

Monohull owners have a disadvantage over catamaran and trimaran owners in that their boat can capsize and sink more easily.

This is because the one-hull design makes them less stable and because they only have one hull, there isn’t any redundancy in case of a hull breach.

If you haven’t yet considered on whether to get a catamaran or a monohull boat you need to read our pros and cons list of catamarans compared to monohull boats. It’s everything you need to consider before you choose what’s right for you!

Also, a monohull usually sits deeper in the water so it is more likely to hit objects that could cause a hull breach.

This is especially true in shallow water and around reefs.

On the other hand, once a catamaran or trimaran yacht does capsize, it cannot right itself.  A monohull yacht can potentially right itself after it capsizes.

What Happens After A Boat Capsizes?

When a boat flips over, it immediately begins to fill up with water.  Anything that was on the deck goes into the water and anything inside the cabin begins to fly around and will eventually float as water enters the cabin.

People who were on the deck are now in the water and people inside of the boat are now upside down. 

It can be very disorienting for these people and they may be too injured to make their way out of the boat.

Monohulls In a Capsize

Monohull passengers will probably be flipped back over shortly after they are knocked down.  The biggest danger for these people is the fact that they may be injured.  This is especially true if items were left out or hatches were left open.

For example, one open kitchen drawer could lead to knives flying around the cabin during the capsize.  Even if all of the cabinets and items inside the boat were secure, the passenger could still be injured from falling.  If the passenger was in the forward cabin, he or she would be less likely to be injured since this cabin is often a berth consisting of only a bed.

Multi-hull Yachts During a Capsize

As we stated earlier, a multi-hull is not going to right itself.  Also, because of its wide stance, it can be a long fall off of the deck during a capsize.

For instance, a 50-foot catamaran could have a width of 26 feet.

This means that a person on the deck could end up falling 26 feet into the water during a capsize.  On the way down, they could hit the mast or any number of other items protruding off the deck.

The people inside the cabin will be upside down and they’ll need to get out of the deck or hull that they’re in.

Some yachts will have escape hatches that the passengers can use to safely get out of the hulls while others may not.

How To Best Prepare For Capsizing

Sometimes the weather or a wave catches a sailor off guard and there isn’t any time to prepare for a capsize.  There really isn’t much you can do at this point.

Other times, the weather changes and the water becomes rough and you just know that there is a higher likelihood that the boat could flip over.

In this instance, you should make sure everyone has their life preservers on.  You should also take down any bimini tops.

The reason for this is that people could get trapped under or within them after the boat capsizes.

You’ll also want to make sure everything on the boat is secure and that there aren’t any unlatched lockers or hatches.  This will help prevent you from getting hit by your equipment during a capsize.

It will also keep your stuff in your boat when you flip.  If you’re boat rights itself quickly, you won’t have lost anything.

In some cases, you may want to keep everyone out of the cabins.  The cabins can become incredibly difficult to get out of after the boat has flipped over and people can drown inside of them.

For this reason, it may actually be safer to be up on deck when the boat does capsize.

What to Do After a Yacht Capsizes

The first step if you’re still in the boat is to get out as quickly as possible.

Ideally, you’ll already have a life jacket on so you won’t have any excuses for delaying.

Once you’re out of the boat, you’ll want to try to stay with it.  A capsized boat is much easier for rescue crews to spot compared to a person floating in the water.

Also, a capsized boat can still make a great flotation device so if possible you could climb back up onto it.  This is especially true if your yacht is a catamaran as it won’t be as difficult to climb back onto and you won’t have to worry about it righting itself while you’re on top of it.

Being on top of the boat reduces your exposure to the water as well as any marine life that may wish to do you harm.  Depending on where you’ve capsized, there may be a very real threat of a shark attack.  If one of the passengers has become injured and is bleeding, this will only increase the chances.

If it’s safe to do so, collect any supplies that you might need.

Water bottles, flares, and extra life jackets could become extremely helpful in an emergency situation.

In fact, the Coast Guard recommends that you tie any extra supplies to the boat as it creates a larger target for rescue crews to see.  You won’t be able to swim back to shore so your best hope will be that someone is able to find and rescue you.

Will The Yacht Sink Completely?

It is rare for a boat to completely sink but it is certainly possible.

In most cases, this happens for one of two reasons:

  1. Hull breaches
  2. The boat filling up with water.   

Sometimes the boat filling up with water is known as the boat swamping.

A boat can fill up with water because its hull was breached or it could happen for other reasons. 

For example, a capsized monohull could become water-logged until it eventually sinks.

Common Reasons For Hull Breaches

A hull breach is when the hull is physically damaged and a hole or large crack opens up in the hull.

This can happen during collisions with:

  • Other boats,
  • Reefs,
  • Jetties,
  • Large rocks,
  • Docks,
  • Or The ground itself. 

Basically, any obstruction that is large enough and hard enough to damage the boat’s hull can cause a hull breach.

When a hull breach does occur, it can cause the boat to take on water.

In some cases, the water incursion will be slow enough that the bilge pump can pump the water out and the hull might be stable enough that the boat does not sink.

In other cases, the hull breach could be so large that even a large boat can sink.  The Titanic is a classic example of this.

This boat was large enough that 4 forward compartments could have flooded without the boat sinking.  Unfortunately, six forward compartments were flooded and 2 hours and 40 minutes after the Titanic was hit, it sunk into the water.

How To Avoid Boat Swamping

A boat can be swamped for all sorts of reasons.  One reason that some boats swamp is because the boat owner has taken the drain plug out.

A small trailerable yacht could have a drain plug and the boat could end up filling up with water shortly after it leaves the boat ramp.

Another reason could be that the bilge pump has failed and the yacht is under the stress of a heavy storm bringing with it a lot of water in the form of waves and heavy rain.  Send enough sea water into a yacht and it will eventually begin to swamp.

In this case, it is recommended that the yacht crew close all hatches so that water cannot get below deck.  This way, the water brought onto the boat by large waves will simply roll off the deck.

A boat could also swamp if the transom were to come off.  In this case, water would come in through the stern and could potentially swamp the boat.

Swamped boats won’t always sink.

If the boat has flotation built into it, it should be able to stay afloat.  However, larger boats do not have to be built to survive a swamping so it is entirely possible that they will eventually sink.

What to Do If Your Boat is Sinking?

The first step you’ll want to take is to make sure you have your life jacket on.  Once you hit the water, it will become difficult to get it on and you may not even be able to find one at this point.

Immediately following this, you’ll want to put out a distress call.

Hopefully, there will be other boats in the area that can rescue you before your boat actually sinks.

After this, you may want to see if you can stop your boat from sinking.  If there is a hull breach, you may be able to plug it.  A broken bilge pump may be able to be repaired or water might be able to be pumped out manually.

If this isn’t possible, you might want to try to get the boat to an area where it will not completely sink.  For example, if your hull was breached because of shallow water, you could leave the boat in the shallow area and stay on it until help arrived.

Once it is apparent that the boat will sink, you may want to grab as many supplies from the boat as you can.  Just don’t risk going beneath the deck to do so or you may get stuck there.

You also need to be aware of horn signals. Here’s a great guide to horn signals for boats so you know exactly what to do.

Final Thoughts

The chances of a yacht sinking or capsizing are very low.

You can lower these chances even further by avoiding bad weather and other dangerous situations.

If you do happen to capsize or sink, take the appropriate steps and you should be able to survive until help arrives.

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