How Often Do Sailboats Capsize & Sink?

How Often Do Sailboats Capsize & Sink? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

May 12, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Try to stay in the boat’s center for the best stability while sailing on smaller boats
  • Make sure you have a working bilge pump before heading out to sea
  • Many boats sink at the boat ramp due to collisions or other pilot errors
  • A sunken boat cannot be saved without additional assistance
  • Breaking waves could be dangerous in rough conditions that help capsize boats

Sailboats are designed to float but there are times when disasters happen that could change that. So how often do sailboats sink?

Each year on average, roughly 200 sailboats capsize and sink, which is less than you would imagine for the amount of boats on the water. If you are dinghy sailing, these typically capsize but do not sink. According to US Coast Guard reports in 2020, there were 211 boats that capsized and sank.

After careful analysis, boat sinking is a lot less common compared to a hundred years ago. Thanks to proper education and technology, sailors have adapted to safer sailing experiences.


Table of contents

What is the Likelihood of a Boat Capsizing and Sinking?

Boats capsize and sink for a variety of different reasons. If you know how to avoid those situations, you will likely be much safer and still have a working boat. Boats can capsize and only a select few are able to keep the boat from sinking.

US Coast Guard Statistics

The US Coast Guard reported 211 sinking boats in the year 2020. These numbers help shape an average for the number of sinking boats within a year.

Most of these accidents were user error, while a handful happened at the dock. The point is, no boat is safe from capsizing and sinking.

Type of Boat

When looking at ships, these are much higher sinking occurrences at two a week. There are a lot of vessels that go missing, so it is believed that many are sunk. It is estimated that thousands of boats sink each year but the type of boat matters in those statistics.

Understanding the Types of Capsizing That Leads to Sinking

There are two types of capsizing that boaters need to know. These are referred to as a knockdown or a turtle.


Knockdowns are also called flips in dinghy sailing. This is when the sails and mast are touching the water and the boat rests at a 90 degree angle.

Dinghies and catamarans can recover fairly easy from this situation. On a dinghy, the crew members should stand on the centerboard to help balance the weight of the boat. For a small catamaran, you would need a line on the upper hull to help pull.

Boats with keels will act a bit different depending on the situation in a knockdown. The crew can often add their weight to the side needed, but water pouring in certain spots may be too much to overcome.


A turtle is when a boat completely turns upside down and is likely going to sink. Dinghies and small catamarans can still turn things around from this situation, provided the crew is able to move the boat to a 90 degree angle from the added weight to the centerboard.

If you have a boat with a keel, this will need further assistance from a professional to help right the boat. Some boats are self-righting, but it varies on the type of keel and boat design. With any other type of vessel that turtles, you will likely need further assistance.

What Causes a Capsized Boat?

Many factors influence a boat to capsize and sink. Most of these should be common knowledge, but it is important to point out these situations so that sailors are better informed.


Flooding is the number one cause for ships to sink. As more water enters the boat, the more weight it adds.

Depending on where the water is coming in at will affect the weight distribution of the vessel. This causes the boat to lean or dive down quickly.


Collisions with an object or the ground can cause water to flood the boat. Depending on how bad boat hits something makes a difference on how fast the boat will take on water. This also affects the weight distribution, making the boat less stable and to potentially flip.

Larger boats are more susceptible to collisions since they require more time to safely come to a stop. Keep in mind that you can still do the same in a smaller boat.

Stability has Suffered

Multihull sailboats have much better stability than monohull boats. Sailboats with keels are also more stable.

If your boat is neither of those, you likely have less stability and could potentially capsize. With dinghy sailing, these are designed to move back and forth in the wind. This causes the boat to flip since it has less stability than others boats.

Bad Weather

Poor weather is the main cause of a sailboat or any vessel to capsize and sink. Since the ocean can be unpredictable in combination with weather, it creates a scary situation if the weather happens to be bad the day of sailing.

Pilot Error

A lot of times people make mistakes whether they are influenced by alcohol or something else. This is no different for operating a sailboat and the pilot makes a mistake.

Sometimes a pilot misreads the current situation on how rough the waves are and continues to sail when near a port. Other times it means failure to respond to dangerous situations due to lack of experience on the water.

Avoiding Preventative Maintenance

Sailboat owners need to routinely make adjustments and make sure the boat is working properly. Skipping out on maintenance could mean your boat does not function the correct way and you could capsize during unplanned conditions.

How to Prevent Capsizing and Sinking

A boat capsized is not a pretty sight while sailing and hopefully you never have to experience it. A lot of people believe that proper care can make sailboats unsinkable.

However, that is simply not true. Here are some tips to stay afloat in your sailboat and how to mitigate the risk.

Leave the Centerboard Alone

In boats that have a retractable centerboard you should always leave it all the way down while the sails are up. In the event you have run aground do not raise the centerboard. If you need to move the centerboard at all you must lower the sail to help lower your risk of capsizing.

Stay Seated

You should try your best to stay seated in smaller boats that tend to have a lot of influence in weight shifts. The weight shift messes with the boom or other parts of the boat needed to navigate safely.

Be Aware of the Wind

You should always keep your head on swivel for the latest wind changes. Sailors that can effectively monitor the wind and how it affects your boat will be one step ahead of any potential capsizing danger.

What to Do if Sailboats Tip Over?

No matter if you are a yacht owner or pilot on a sailboat, there are ways to help prepare for when a boat is tipping over. If your sailboat were to tip over, you should:

  • Try to account for everyone that was on board
  • Grab life jackets if you are already not wearing them
  • Enter sailboat from bow or stern and never the sides
  • Sit at bow and help bail water if you can (if applicable)
  • Call for help
How Often Do Sailboats Capsize & Sink?
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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