Is Sailing Dangerous?

Is Sailing Dangerous? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

Danger is always in the back of your mind when picking up a new sport, buying a new boat, or heading to the dock. Ask any sailor who has spent a significant amount of time aboard a boat and they will most likely give you a couple of stories of mishap or close-calls that they’ve had while they are out on the water.

So is sailing dangerous? The short answer to that question is that yes, sailing can be dangerous. Just how driving your car on the interstate can be dangerous. In fact, as the U.S. Coastguard provides some exemplary information, we can see that in 2018 there were 4,145 accidents that involved 633 deaths and 2,511 injuries from recreational boating activities. Keeping in mind that this includes all recreational boating activities, sailing makes up a small portion of these accidents. These numbers standing by themselves can feel scary, but when broken down into the types of risk factors that cause accidents, it is far easier to prevent accidents from happening. 


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But sailing isn’t a doom and gloom sport and these numbers shouldn’t be used to prove that sailing is unbelievably dangerous. Nearly 4 million people go sailing every year. It can be a rewarding way to spend the day outside with friends and family. Using nothing but the power of a sustained wind to propel a vessel is one of the purest methods of travel and is incredibly exhilarating. With some proper planning and understanding of the associated risks, sailing is an excellent sport for everyone. Sailing is a deeply rewarding way to spend a day out on the water that needs your full attention, careful understanding of the risks, and preparation for the unexpected.

Accidents that are related to sailing and recreational boating, in general, have contributing factors. By understanding the factors that cause sailing accidents many of these accidents can be prevented. Here’s what to avoid, be mindful of, and how to prepare for a day out on the water.

1. Alcohol and sailing don’t always mix

Most recreational sailors don’t care about racing, trans-ocean crossings, or global circumnavigations. Many people take to the water to enjoy the afternoon, eat a great meal on the water, spend time with friends, and enjoy a unique method of travel. But much like driving a car, operating a sailboat under the influence of alcohol can have dangerous consequences. According to the U.S. Coastguard, alcohol use is the leading known cause in boating accidents and was a leading factor in 19% of boating related deaths.

The effects of alcohol on the ability to drive a car is very well understood but it is frequently overlooked that operating a sailboat, or any other type of boat for that matter, while under the influence of alcohol can be very dangerous. Many local and national laws have prohibitive laws that are similar to those regarding cars as well.

2. Always carry lifejackets

Life jackets do one thing and do it well. They prevent drowning, the most common cause of death in sailing accidents. While lifejackets don’t need to be worn by every single person all the time, depending on your local sailing regulations, they should be easily accessible in case of emergency.

In many cases, such as if the wind unexpectedly picks up or if swells increase, someone falling overboard is possible. Lifejackets are specifically designed to assist a swimmer in staying at the surface of the water until they can be rescued.

Boat size should also be considered when deciding whether or not wearing a lifejacket is required. Small boats are much more likely to run into problems in high swells or strong winds. They are also more likely to capsize and can become uncontrollable as weather changes.

Regulations regarding the use of lifejackets vary widely so it is important to understand them for wherever you plan on using your sailboat. There are also different stipulations for children and adults in many areas and it is your job to understand them.

3. Boating safety education is key

A staggeringly high number of accidents happen on boats where the operator did not receive boating safety instruction. While saying that safety is essential while operating a sailboat is easy, it can be hard to understand what this really means without someone who can communicate the risks and educate you on how to avoid them.

Boater safety courses are considered one of the greatest ways to understand the risks that are associated with heading out onto the water. In these types of courses, you can learn about right of way, the necessary requirements for items such as outboard motors, navigation lights, and emergency contact equipment such as personal locator beacons and flares.

4. Keep speed in-check and make attentiveness paramount

While there is a time and place for pushing your sailboats capabilities such as your local racing club, excessive speed around other boats, harbors, and marinas is another factor that leads to accidents involving sailboats. Like driving a car, there are many maritime rules that are put in place to reduce collisions. 

When entering marinas are harbors, it is best to maintain a consistent speed, be mindful of maritime buoy lanes.  Because sailing doesn’t require the boat to be propelled by a motor, the boats maneuverability is greatly reduced in these situations.

Boater safety education, as well as sailing instruction is a great place to learn the expectations and rules regarding sailing in your local area. Finally, sometimes as sailors, we just love to go fast. The exhilaration of racing sailboats is truly magical. Partaking in races is a great competition and there are classes for all types of boats, however these races take place away from potential hazards and have their own set of rules regulating sailboats.


Easily the biggest contributing factor to boating accidents is alcohol. Leading to impairment, alcohol can cause speed to go unchecked and attention to slip. This can cause potentially dangerous situations but can be easily avoided.

A fundamental boater safety course can give you the tools you need to understand how to sail safely. It is easy to make these classes social by signing up for one with your sailing buddies or the whole family. These courses can provide education on local regulations, emergency and safety equipment such as lifejackets, personal locator beacons, etc. By getting the training, you can begin to learn how to sail in the safest manner possible. 

The dangers of sailing should never be prohibitive for anyone looking to head out on the water for the weekend. While there are a wide range of accidents that can occur out on the water, many of the most common accidents can be prevented with a little knowledge of some of the leading factors that cause accidents.

Is Sailing Dangerous?
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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