Capsizing of Large Vessels - Causes & Safety Procedures

Mankind has now mastered the seas, but that doesn’t mean embarking in your vessel doesn’t hold a degree of risk even today. Whether you’re a salt-seasoned captain with years of experience under your belt, or just a casual fisherman or pleasure cruiser, the waters are still a very dangerous and unpredictable place to be. Hazardous weather and dangerous sea conditions rarely play a part in the majority of boating fatalities due to capsizing. The true culprit? Human error or miscalculation. Even with excellent boating conditions, unexpected accidents can happen to anyone at any time, even the largest and most stable vessels - no one is immune to the unpredictability of seafaring. Before even boarding a vessel of any make or size, it is important to be educated about boating safety if you wish to keep your vessel from capsizing and to know what to do in the case of an accident. At Ocean Marine Brokerage Services, we’re happy to share our knowledge and experience to help keep you, your loved ones, and your vessel safe while out on the water.

The capsizing of a ship at sea occurs when the vessel lists to one side so far that it is not able to right itself and regain its proper position. According to the US Coast guard, this is the number one cause of boat related injuries and deaths. An estimated 1,000 people perish each year due to boating accidents, many of which occur in a capsizing scenario. The sad fact about these unfortunate occurrences is that can usually be easily avoided, especially on larger vessels. Again, large vessels like cruise liners and cargo ships are built to withstand the constant battering of the ocean, so weather and sea conditions rarely factor into their capsizing as their hulls are designed to be malleable and safely fluctuate with even the toughest sea swells - the predominant cause of these incidents is human error on behalf of the operators such as turning too quickly or mishandling the ship’s anchor. Navigation errors are also a common factor in the capsizing of large ships, as was the case with the events leading to the infamous Costa Concordia disaster of 2012 that resulted in the loss of 32 souls. Larger vessels usually have very sophisticated navigational systems, but these can occasionally fail and cause the vessel’s operator to strike an object or run aground even if the operators are paying attention. Overloading or shifting of cargo can also play a factor, disrupting a vessel’s center of gravity and causing it to list dangerously.

Regardless of the causes or likelihood, a capsizing vessel is not the first place you’d want to be, so being prepared for the worst is extremely important for even the most skilled and experienced mariner. Since you won’t be concerning yourself with righting a large ship once it has capsized at sea, the top priority will of course be survival at sea. This is why before setting foot on a ship, it is highly recommended that you assemble a survival bag complete with items you’ll need if stranded during a capsizing - this should include a flashlight, compass, knife, waterproof matches, sunscreen, fresh water and rations, a signaling mirror, flares, and a first aid kit. Once aboard, it is critical to familiarize yourself with the ship’s layout, identifying at least two avenues in your compartment that will allow you to escape and reach the deck. Even crewmen who are intimately familiar with their vessel have reported becoming disoriented and lost during a capsizing as their familiar understanding of the vessel is literally turned upside down, so make the fastest route possible your first priority. Loss of power is likely in such an event, so the flashlight or matches from your aforementioned survival bag will help you navigate your escape route. Most large vessels are also equipped with several lifeboats or rafts. If you manage to get onto one, your chances of drowning, encountering dangerous marine life, exposure, and hypothermia decrease significantly. Your chances of rescue will also increase as searching for even a small craft is much simpler than searching for someone floating in a lifejacket, so familiarizing yourself with these emergency boats or rafts is critical. However, if you can’t make your way to the lifeboats, then look for bobbing objects that will help keep you afloat and don’t stray too far from the sinking vessel as this is the first place rescue teams will be looking.

Capsizing is an undoubtedly frightening event, so whether you find yourself in the water or on a lifeboat, it is also important to stay calm and be patient as you wait for rescue. It is largely preferable to avoid this kind of scenario all together, but by being mindful and following these simple safety instructions, you’ll be ready in the case of a capsizing, no matter how unlikely.