How Often Do Sailboats Capsize? (Explained For Beginners)

When you go out sailing, your boat will heel to one side, or sometimes back and forth to both sides if you are running downwind.

The more wind, the more you will heel.

So how often does a sailboat actually capsize?

Here’s how often sailboats capsize:

In dinghy sailing, it is not uncommon to capsize. It is far less common for larger keelboats which can be very difficult or impossible to recover from. A capsize in a keelboat is almost always a serious issue and may require outside assistance.

Different Types of Capsizing:

For sailboats, there are two kinds of capsizes:

The Knockdown:

The first is a knockdown, often called a flip in dinghies.

A knockdown is when your boat is knocked over 90 degrees, to where the mast and sails are touching the water.

Dinghies can recover from a knockdown fairly easily. One (sometimes more) of the crew stands on the centerboard, and their weight levers the boat back into an upright position.

Recovering a small catamaran is done similarly, though it often requires a line from the upper hull to get proper leverage.

For keelboats, the situation is much different in a knockdown. Most will start to the right themselves when the crew gets to the high side, but if water gets into the interior and continues to pour in, the boat may not right by itself and require outside assistance.

The Turtle:

The other kind of capsize is called a turtle, where the boat is complete upside down.

A dinghy (and small catamaran) can still recover from this under most circumstances, again by leveraging against the centerboard until 90 degrees and then until upright.

A keelboat that turtles will require outside assistance to right itself.

You may need outside assistance with large multi-hulls as well.

Can All Sailboats Capsize in a Strong Wind?

The simple truth here is yes.

No matter its size and design, any sailboat is susceptible to capsizing if the wind gets strong enough.

Every boat that has ever been manufactured can capsize in certain conditions, such as hurricane-force winds. Still, sailboats are particularly susceptible to capsizing in strong winds by their very nature.

This is why sailors will reef their sails in higher winds. Reefing sails reduce the sail area to slow you down and prevent being pulled by the wind.

There are usually two places of reinforcement (sometimes three or even four on certain distance cruising boats) that may be lowered to create a smaller sail on the mainsails. This reduced sail area decreases the pressure on the sails and makes the boat easier to handle and more upright in higher winds.

In the worst weather, sailors will usually lower their sails completely and throw out a sea anchor. This device is deployed off the bow and keeps the boat pointing into the wind and waves to not get spun sideways to the waves and capsize.

What Types of Sailboats Capsize the Most?

Dinghies are the smallest sailboats and are more susceptible to capsizing than other kinds of sailboats, like yachts or catamarans.

It is almost expected that you will flip your dinghy at some point during a sail, and it is not particularly difficult to recover from. The main problems would be if the crew is exhausted, as climbing up on the centerboard requires some strength and damage to the sails or rigging.

For example, in collegiate sailing races can be run in high winds, and many races are packed into a single day. A crew that flips late in the day may be too exhausted to the right their boat, which is why many powerboats are usually on standby to help.

Damage to the rigging may prevent a boat from righting, for example, if the mast is bent or, in more extreme circumstances, the boat is dismasted.

A damaged sail may also wrap around the rigging and remain filled with water, making a recovery more difficult.

Are Sailboats More Likely to Capsize than other Boats?

Because sailboats heel to one side as the wind moves them, they are always closer to being capsized than any other kind of boat.

However, most sailboats are designed with ultimate stability in mind. The more they heel, the more stable they actually become because of the designed shape and displacement of the hull.

Catamarans are the opposite here.

They have great initial stability because they are on such a wide plain. Even when they fly a hull (one hull out of the water), they are still pretty stable.

Catamarans have poor ultimate stability. The angle of heel they cannot recover from is not as favorable as monohulls, even if it takes them longer to get there because of their initial stability.

Other boats do not heel as a normal part of their operation, so they are less likely in general to capsize than sailboats. That being said, some hull designs have been poor on larger merchant ships, and they lack ultimate stability.

The history of the sea has demonstrated that many vessels have had a point of no return that they could not recover from.

How Do you Prevent Your Boat from Capsizing?

There are several ways to prevent capsizing.

The first is to let out your sails, dumping all the power. Letting out your sails is a standard thing to do when sailing in heavy air.

The power generated by the trimmed-in sails causes the boat to heel, so dumping the power will almost always cause the boat to the right itself if you are heeling too far.

If you are sailing in heavy air, you may find yourself doing this over and over, but it is often a necessary and prudent thing to do.

You can also sail under a reduced sail area.

We already mentioned reefing your sails. When they see bad weather on the horizon, most sailors will reef their sails before the heavier winds reach them, as it is best to be prepared rather than acting when it is already upon you.

You can also put up a smaller headsail. Most boats carry a jib (a small area, usually less than the area of the boat’s foretriangle) or even a storm jib (a much smaller sail, usually with enough area for directional stability but not enough to generate power).

The final option, as mentioned earlier, is to take down all of your sails and throw out a sea anchor if you are offshore or a regular anchor with a lot of lines if you are along the coast or in a bay.

Taking down your sails keeps your bow pointed into the wind. Otherwise, your boat may be buffeted sideways to the large waves, and capsizing becomes a higher probability.

Should I be Worried About Capsizing With my Sailboat?

If you are inexperienced, it is absolutely an issue, especially in a dinghy, where capsizing is easy.

But capsizing in a dinghy is the best way to build experience and confidence to handle it when it occurs.

Capsizing a keelboat is far less common, but it is still something you should be concerned with for the beginner. The first time you have your keelboat out in heavy air, and she starts to heel over. This can induce a little panic.

Knowing how to deal with the rough weather will enable you to keep a cooler head and stay focused, and with experience, you will lose any unreasonable worries about capsizing.

Most experienced sailors will tell you that it is better to prepare as if you are worried. Overconfidence can lead to being unprepared when foul weather hits your boat.

Final Thoughts

Capsizing is a part of sailing in the smaller dinghies and an ever-present possibility in keelboats.

Preventing it is usually within most sailors’ ability, but when it happens, knowing how to deal with it is paramount.

Experience is the best teacher here, in dinghies and yachts, but educating yourself with articles and videos can prepare you to a large degree, as well.


Capsizing – Wikipedia

Heavy Weather Sailing – Yachting Monthly

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