Overturned Vessels – A guide to escaping!

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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.

Before we go into it let’s take a quick look at common causes of capsizing.

Common causes of capsize

There can be so many causes for a vessel to capsize including rough seas and operator error. We cannot eliminate rough seas but we can control the man made 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
  • 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 a number of 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 scene 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 with 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 panic needs to be overcome or at least controlled to increase your chances of survival.

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

Here’s 12 key steps …

  1. 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;
  4. Picture the vessels layout and 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;
  6. You need to make the decision to escape or stay and wait! In most cases waiting can end up in loss of life. 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. You can do this by breathing normally a few times then taking a deep breath in, then exhale everything then take a really deep breath in…as deep as you can manage;
  9. Remember it’s usually dark and if you don’t have a face mask close your eyes (especially as there may be fuel, oil, etc. in the water) and proceed with your escape;
  10. Use one hand to clear away debris and the other as a guide touching surfaces such as bulkheads, decks, etc.
  11. Follow the escape path you mapped out earlier;
  12. 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!

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!

Shorlink’s Recommendation

Ensuring your vessels stability by loading and securing cargo, monitoring passenger distribution and for trawlers being prepared for hook-up’s is number 1 on our recommendation list.

Second and most importantly ensuring you know the vessels layout and potential hazards to escaping. While this may sound silly as you’re onboard and know your way around the vessel but, not many consider the potential hazards if they have to escape.

Our last recommendation is to be aware of alcohol consumption and either limit or ban it completely for all crew members and make your vessel a drug free workplace!


Drugs and alcohol have been a major cause of maritime incidents, including capsizes so drug and alcohol testing can be a major component in your safety planning. Don’t wait until it’s too late, take action early to insure the safety of all people onboard!

Customised Log Books

While we have a range of log books for most purposes there is always a need for something different so…if you need a log book for a specific purpose we can format it for you. Simply contact our office and give us the details and we’ll have it developed in no time at all and, we’ll have re-supply available when you need a replacement.