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Boating Updated:

What is Most Likely to Cause Someone to Fall Overboard?

Fall Overboard

According to United States Coast Guard's recreational boat statistics, 299 boat accidents involving falling overboard were reported in 2019. 63% of these accidents resulted in death, while the others caused serious injuries.

While falling overboard may seem rare, such accidents rank 5th of all recreational boating accidents recorded in the U.S. in 2019. Understanding the cause of why people fall overboard is critical in boating safety.

The most likely cause of falling overboard is standing up while the boat is moving. When a boat is moving it is more likely to be swayed back and forth by boat waves or rough water. This causes people on small boats to lose their balance and fall overboard.

While people still fall overboard from large boats, cruise ships, etc., it a rare occurrence, and the most common cause isn't standing when the boat is moving. In most cases, such falls are linked to alcohol or general carelessness.

Why would someone stand when the boat is moving?

While common sense dictates that you shouldn't stand when the boat is moving, why do some people take the risk? There are a few underlying reasons why people ignore the boat safety rules.

I. Fishing

It is very common for anglers to be standing when they are fishing. They can move their rod around freely when they are standing, and fight fish easier.

Unfortunately, this can also cause some unexpected “man overboard” events. That's why we recommend that all anglers wear a certified PFD (personal fl when fishing. You'll often see professionals wearing automatic inflatable life jackets.

II. Intoxication

Excessive alcohol and drug consumption are to blame for many overboard falls. In fact, 40% of all overboard falls are linked to alcohol consumption. Alcohol and drugs are known to impair thinking and cause poor judgment. The likelihood of an intoxicated person standing while the boat is moving is higher than those of a sober person.

III. Recklessness/carelessness

Other overboard falls are just out of pure carelessness. A person may decide to stand while they are in a speeding boat to put up a “show” on social media, impress others, etc. Actions that are considered reckless on a boat include, but aren't limited to, climbing railing when a boat is moving, recreating risky acting such as the famous Titanic movie scene, and taking pictures in precarious positions.

What to do immediately when someone falls overboard?

The chances of rescuing someone who has fallen overboard are higher if action is taken immediately. It's important to know if the person has fallen into cold water or warm water.

Here are some important steps to follow.

1. Call for Help

If you witness someone falling overboard, shout for help immediately to alert other passengers or occupants. If the fall is serious enough, others may need to call the u.s. coast guard to help with the overboard situation.

2. Keep an eye on the person who has fallen overboard

After raising the alarm, make sure you track the person who has fallen or instructs others to do so. This step is critical since someone who falls overboard is bound to swim or be at the mercy of waves.

If the person fell into cold water, you'll need to make sure they are alert and conscious. It is critical to keep track of their position at all times.

3. Throw a Life Ring or Life Jacket

Proceed by throwing a life ring, life jacket, or anything else overboard to help the person float.

Life rings are a Type IV PDF and are brightly colored, making it easier to see the victim. A reaching pole/assist can also work. The idea is to ensure the victim has something to grab onto before they are pulled out of the water.

4. Turn Back the Boat / Stop the Boat

If the watercraft is moving fast, you may need to turn back. If not, the boat should be stopped to rescue the person. For large boats that can’t be turned easily, a life raft or smaller boat can be used to save the victim. This precaution can prevent propeller injuries when a running boat is too close to the victim.

5. Bring the Person Back Aboard

When pulling the victim into a small boat, be careful not to put too much weight on one side of the boat. Doing this can result in capsizing which will turn into an even bigger rescue mission.

If you're on a sailboat, it is best to bring the person to the stern of the sailboat. Most pontoon boats will have a ladder on the side the person can climb up.

What should I do if I fall overboard?

Assuming you are the one who accidentally falls overboard, what should you do?

Stay Calm. Think Positive

Many successful rescuing attempts are made possible because the victim stayed calm and did as they should in such a situation.

Float instead of Swimming

If you fall far away from the shore, don't waste your energy swimming. Instead, try to float. It is easier to recollect yourself and breathe easy when you are floating. You also save some much-needed energy floating.

You should know the basics of floating before getting into any boat. Moreover, it is possible to float for 29 hours+ and withstand dehydration, storms, sea creatures, etc., as you wait to be rescued.

Precautions to avoid falling overboard

Since standing up in a moving boat is the main cause of falling overboard, you should;

SIT OR SUPPORT YOURSELF WHEN STANDING IN A MOVING BOAT: Boaters must follow a general rule – sitting down or ensuring one or both hands are holding firmly on handholds for support when standing. It’s also advisable to use other support such as toe rails to avoid falling.

AVOID DECKS DURING WINDY WEATHER: Other precautions include avoiding boat decks during bad weather. Wind can increase waves and create instability on decks. Even if you are holding firmly on handholds and toe rails, your likelihood of falling overboard in windy weather is higher.

NEVER GET INTOXICATED IF IT WILL LAPSE YOUR JUDGMENT: If you can't drink moderately without compromising your judgment, avoid drinking at all while on a boat. Everyone that boards a boat should adhere to this precaution.

NEVER ENGAGE IN RECKLESS BEHAVIOR: While it may be tempting to recreate the titanic pose for social media or engage in other risky behavior to impress people, understand the dangers first. It's also important to invest in non-slip shoes if you must walk on wet boat floors. Also, don't sit on pedestal chairs, fish from a moving boat without the right equipment, and support or lower an anchor while you are sitting in the bow.


You are most likely to fall overboard if you are standing up in a moving boat. As discussed above, there are several reasons that may make a person want to stand up when a boat is moving. Recklessness and intoxication are among the main reasons for people engaging in dangerous behavior. Psychological problems are also to blame. To avoid accidentally falling overboard, boaters should sit when the boat is moving or have the necessary support and footwear if they must stand up. It also helps to avoid risky behavior.

If the inevitable happens and someone falls overboard, raise the alarm, keep your eyes on the victim, throw them a life ring and then turn off the boat and rescue them. If you fall overboard, stay calm and focus on floating rather than swimming as you wait to be rescued.

Chris Blackwell Boating
About Chris Blackwell

Chris is an avid angler and boating enthusiast. Raised on a small lake he spent most of his youth fishing in Jon Boats and water skiing behind Fiberglass boats. Chris enjoys taking his family out on the water so they can relive the fun he has always had.

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