Escape from an overturned vessel A brief guide to save your life!

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Escape from an overturned vessel A brief guide to save your life!

Over recent years there have been too many deaths in both the commercial and recreational sectors due to overturned or capsized vessels.

Being trapped in an overturned vessel is no doubt an extremely traumatic experience for anyone! It’s an experience that so often ends up in death due to not knowing what to do.

Escape from an overturned vessel A brief guide to save your life!

Before we go into it let’s take a quick look at capsizes and their causes..

Causes of capsize

There are many causes for a vessel to capsize including rough seas and operator error. We cannot eliminate rough seas, but we can control the man mad issues in many instances.

A few of the man-made issues include:

  • Overloading: exceeding the approved weight/passenger limits
  • Distribution of weight: e.g., too much cargo or passengers to one side, the bow or stern
  • Weight carried to high: e.g., on the cabin top or upper decks
  • Unsecured cargo
  • Trawler hook-up
  • Sudden passenger movement to one side; and
  • Drugs and/or alcohol

This is a short list of potential hazards to take into account, but drugs and alcohol have been a factor in capsizes and many other incidents resulting in serious injuries and deaths!

What’s the primary cause of death?

While most people will say drowning which is true but there is a more sinister menace behind the scenes that plays a major factor in just about every case.

Panic can be classed as the most significant factor in just about all cases and…who can blame anyone for panicking?

Consider that you’re asleep in your bunk and suddenly you find yourself in an upside-down vessel with water and all sorts of things floating around you.

It’s dark, it’s wet, it’s confusing and…it is scary!

I run a session on escaping from overturned vessels which has been well received by both owners and operators. Below I’ll give a brief outline for your benefit.

Escape techniques

There is not enough space in this newsletter to go into details, but I’ll outline the basics for you.

When you realise the situation you’re in the immediate response is PANIC.

While it’s easy to say  but the fact is panic must be overcome or at least controlled to increase your chances of survival.

Let’s consider your vessel has capsized and you’re trapped in a cabin with a small air pocket, which is what happens in many cases.

Escape techniques

Here’s 10 key steps …

  1. first, take a few deep breaths to calm yourself down;
  2. remember where you are in the vessel;
  3. ensure you’re not entangled with anything, if so untangle yourself;
  4. picture the vessels layout in your mind and identify the best possible escape path. This will be relevant to the vessels operations and equipment carried onboard;
  5. remember that with the vessel being upside-down everything is reversed: e.g., if you normally turn left to exit when leaving your cabin, you’ll now need to turn right but…that may also be dependent upon the vessel layout and potential escape routes;
  6. you need to make the decision to escape or stay and wait! In most cases staying can end up in death due to a lack of oxygen. If you decide to escape then you need to take action quickly;
  7. map out you escape route clearly in your mind;
  8. then it’s time to go so fill your lings with air, close your eyes if you don’t have a mask or goggles (especially as there may be fuel, oil, etc. in the water) and proceed with your escape;
  9. use one hand to clear away debris and the other as a guide touching surfaces such as bulkheads, decks, etc.
  10. when outside the vessel, look for any form of buoyant appliance or item that can help keep you afloat. If the vessel remains afloat use it for support. If the vessel is sinking and not staying afloat move away using any form of buoyant appliance.

The above is only a guide and there are many other steps that can save your life but…

…there are many dangers involved that can impact on your escape as well!

A couple of important things to remember…

If you’re in a cabin of a capsized vessel the amount of oxygen available is limited and can be consumed quickly, especially if you’re panicking.

If you’re not already gasping for air the lack of oxygen won’t kill you, but carbon dioxide will! Remember that panicking and hyperventilating uses a lot more oxygen.

When you’re unable to breathe, carbon dioxide can’t leave your body, so it builds up in your bloodstream. It acidifies the blood and can kill you in just a few minutes.

The other thing to take into account is hypothermia which sets in when your body temperature falls below 35°C. Refer to our newsletters on hypothermia.

Shorlink’s Recommendation

Our number one recommendation is to ensure you remain aware of things that impact on stability and have the potential to capsize your vessel.

Never overload your vessel or place weight high up and ensure all cargo is secured so it doesn’t move around.

Finally keep alcohol and drugs out of the equation. Being impaired by alcohol and/or drugs is a recipe for disaster. Your decision making ability diminishes quicky when under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs so…stay alert and stay alive!


Capsizing usually happens very quickly and often without warning so our tip is to be prepared and have your crew trained in escaping if your vessel does capsize.

If you would like more information on this subject or to book a training session don’t hesitate to contact our office because…it’s your safety and the safety of your crew!