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How to recover your dinghy in the event of a capsize

Knowing what to do in the event of a capsize is one of the fundamentals of dinghy sailing so capsize recovery should be one of the first things you learn. Seasoned sailors accept capsizing as part-and-parcel of the sport, but for a novice, an unplanned capsize can come as a shock. As such, for your own good (and that of your boat), your first capsize should be in a safe, controlled environment; ideally as part of a beginners’ sailing course. For a taste of what to expect, here are the essentials for dinghy recovery.

Capsizing: three basic rules.

The right capsize recovery technique to use usually depends on both the type of capsize you experience, as well as on the number of occupants. Here, we’ll look at basic one and two-handed recovery techniques. In all situations however, you should bear in mind the following:

Check the safety of all occupants. Get them to confirm that they are ok and check that they have their head out of the water.

Stay with your boat. Remember that even in a light wind, there’s a strong likelihood that the boat will be blown away faster than you are able to swim. Keep a good hold of part of the hull.

Do not remain under the boat. There is usually only very limited airspace under a dinghy. As such, move to the outer edge, take a deep breath in the air pocket and edge out from under it while holding on. In the unlikely event that you find yourself under the sail, don’t panic. Your buoyancy aid will hold you up in a pocket of air and by lifting your hand, you increase the size of this. With your hand up, use your other hand to paddle to the rear edge of the sail and duck out from under it.

Capsizing: how and why…

Almost all capsizes are down to a combination of balance and wind. Essentially, if there is too much wind in the sails and not enough weight on the windward side, the boat will heel into the water. 

In changeable conditions, you (and your occupant) may have positioned all of your weight on the windward side, only for the wind to suddenly die down completely or change direction without you having enough time to move your weight to the new windward side.

Two-handed scoop recovery

In this method, where the boat is on its side, the helmsman (helm) pulls the boat up with the other occupant (crew) already in it. Once the boat is upright, the crew can then balance the boat while the helm gets in. Here’s a basic outline of how it’s done.

1. Once it becomes clear that a capsize is inevitable, both occupants should let themselves fall into the water between sail and hull.

2. Helm and crew should make sure they are both ok, but communicating and working their way round to the stern of the boat to ensure they are both ok and that the rudder is secure. With the mainsheet in hand, Helm swims to the centreboard. Meanwhile, crew locates the jibsheet and help push the centreboard.

3. Helm calls for the jibsheet. Crew then throws this over the hull to helm. Once the helm has the jibsheet, the can let go of the mainsheet

4. Crew floats inside the boat, in the water, if possible holding a toe strap and checking the mainsheet is free, while helm pulls the boat upright, scooping up crew in the hull.

5. As the boat comes upright, it may be possible for helm to scramble on deck. If not, crew then helps helm to get onboard.

Single-handed recovery

Without a crew on hand to help, the technique changes slightly. When single-handed, it’s especially important not to get separated from the boat.

1. Allow yourself to fall into the water

2. In the water, ensure the centreboard/daggerboard is down and securely attached. Swim around the boat, checking the rudder on the way.

3. Depending on your size and weight (and that of the boat), you may be able to recover by taking hold of the centreboard with both hands and pulling down on it, being careful not to apply too much weight so as to damage the centreboard. If this is not possible, climb onto the centreboard and walk backwards. This will cause the boat to come up slowly.

4. Hold onto the toe straps and pull yourself into the boat.

To get to grips with capsize recovery and all other essentials of dinghy handling, check out the RYA’s programme of courses. Before you take to the water, speak to our dinghy insurance experts to make sure you can do so with confidence by having the right cover in place to protect your vessel.