So, it has happened –  you have capsized, and even worse you were not quick enough to leap over the side and stop it inverting. The first essential of both helm and crew is to hold onto the boat or a line and keep in contact with the boat at all times; in a strong wind the boat can blow away from you faster than you can swim.

What do you do now that the boat is upside down? This rather depends on the mark of boat you have. With the Woodie and MK I and MK II models throw a jib sheet or righting line across the boat; a loop of the spinnaker sheet wrapped twice around the shroud also works well as a pulling handle and then as a launching platform/step for getting back inboard. So pull yourself onto the hull and stand on the gunwale. Using the jib sheet or righting line lean out and slowly pull the boat onto its side. Bringing the boat up slowly has added benefit of turning it into the wind, so making it less likely to flip over again.

capsize 1

Photo c/o Marcin Chumieci &

As the boat comes onto its side clamber onto the centreboard and hold the boat on its side. If you had your spinnaker up at the time of the capsize, now is a good time for one of the crew to recover it whilst the other, on the centreboard, keeps the boat steady on its side. Free all the sheets and release the kicker. This makes the boat easier to right and the boat is less likely to flip back over/sail away once righted.

The boat can now be recovered using the RYA scoop method. With the scoop method one person lies in the water close to the centreboard case and the other stands on the centreboard and leans back using the jib sheet or righting line to give more leverage. As the boat comes level the more agile crew on the centreboard can clamber over into the boat. The other person who was lying in the water has already been scooped in.

If it is very windy (force 6 plus) you may have to take the mainsail down in order to keep the boat upright and allow you to bail the boat out with the bucket you had previously tied into the boat under the foredeck. Raising the centreboard as soon as the boat comes back upright can stop the boat from tending to “trip over” the board and re-capsize. Probably best to leave a bit sticking out, just in case it’s needed again!

If you are in a Wayfarer World or MK IV the technique is a little different. These boats, when upside down, are very stable and may resist normal attempts to right them. Pull open the transom flaps to help to break the suction when inverted. Now you will have to clamber onto the hull and make your way to one of the back corners of the transom and stand on it. You can use the spinnaker sheet to help you keep your balance and give you more leverage. Without a spinnaker sheet you may have had the foresight to have a handy righting line already rigged. With your weight on the corner of the transom the back of the boat will sink a bit, just enough to break the seal between upturned hull and water. Keep pulling the boat up until it comes level and then follow the technique for the MK I and MK II boats.

All this sounds very simple and straightforward but there are lots of “Yes but, what ifs” to take into account. What if the centreboard has slipped back in its case? I know it shouldn’t but sometimes we put off those little jobs like adjusting the centreboard brake so the centreboard won’t fall back into its case when upside down. If the board was a loose fit in its case then you should be able to prise it out with a finger or if the owner doesn’t see a bit of help from your safety knife can get it started. If on the other hand it is stuck, you have two options – either wait until the boat is on its side and get the crew to get the board down, or have one person go under the boat to put the board down.

What if you are unfit, overweight or not as agile as you once were? In this case you need to consider mast head buoyancy to prevent inversion, and a set of righting/crew recovery lines that you have tried out and practised with before it happens for real. If you are racing and have tried to recover from inverted and are very tired then the RYA recommends a couple of ways to right a turtled boat using a safety boat.  For speed the RYA recommends two large men on the hull, especially in an entrapment situation, or, if a safety boat is in attendance, the recommendation is that safety boat crews have completed an RYA safety boat course, not just a power boat course, and know which method to use. This may be attaching a line to a shroud plate, passing the line over the boat’s hull in front of the centreboard. (If it passes aft of the centreboard it will chew up the trailing edge rather badly). Then pass the rope to the front or back of the safety boat which then pulls the boat upright.

What if the weather forecast is force 5 to 6 gusting 7? The MK IV has an RCD category C rating and is suitable for up to 6 people. Category C is for winds up to and including force 6 and waves up to 2m high. This doesn’t mean anyone can sail a MK IV in these conditions, after all you probably have a car that is capable of over 100mph but would be foolish to drive at these speeds unless you have been trained. Many cruising sailors will not sail if there is a 6 in the forecast but it is down to the individual. Local conditions, type of waves, fitness of crew, unflappability in a crisis, availability of a safety RIB with trained crew, ratio of safety boats to number of boats sailing.

All these reasons and more will guide your decision to sail or not. But remember, if you are setting out in 25 knots of wind you are at the top end of the RCD category C and wind speeds are not fixed and can vary both up and down. Setting out to cross to the Outer Hebrides for an 8 hour sail in open waters with a forecast force 6 and no safety cover is asking for trouble, whereas racing for an hour or so on an inland stretch of water with plenty of safety cover in the same wind conditions is an exciting challenge for the experienced sailor.

Photo c/o

Photo c/o Marcin Chumieci &

What if I get the boat upright and neither of the crew are in the boat? With the MK I and MK II boats they float quite low in the water once righted from a capsize and it is relatively easy to “swim” into the boat rather like a seal – not elegant, but effective! With self-draining boats, they do what it says on the tin; they self-drain and consequently empty out and float much higher. This can be a problem for the unfit, less agile, weaker crews. Here you will need assistance from righting lines, boarding ladders and the like. Decide which of the crew is to get in the boat first. Choose the fittest most agile one to get in first. Use your lines for your feet and a hefty help from the one in the water and thrutch (a rock climbing term meaning to heave and struggle) your way in. Once one person is in they can assist the other to join them. This can be over the stern in a MK IV or over the side. It can be difficult to get from the water over the side of the MK IV or World due to the overhanging lip and the bulk of your buoyancy aid. It is easier at the stern. A short line/loop around the back end of the rear toe straps allows you to stretch in over transom and grab it first and then grab the toe straps so that you can use them to pull yourself in over the transom. Once you get your body weight up on the transom it dips towards the water and then you can slide in quite effectively (but definitely not gracefully).

Technique is vital. I have seen a 10 stone female recover a 16 stone male by pushing the person in the water downwards, and then, using the buoyancy in their buoyancy aid, heave them over the side. This is the dunking technique, yes, just like dunking a biscuit. If this is not an option then use the method for recovering a person who has fallen off a pontoon. Get them alongside hanging onto the shroud and get a leg on board then grab leg, buoyancy aid, anything that comes to hand (please avoid soft squashy bits!) and heave and roll them into the boat, where they can flounder about until they catch their breath.

Mast head buoyancy

Having mast head buoyancy will, if you have sufficient, stop your boat from inverting. The added bonus being that when capsized you can climb up the inside of the boat using the mast as a step to get on top of the boat and then onto the centreboard. Scoop your crew into the boat, recover crew etc. and away you go.

Secumar device - Photo credit

Secumar device – Photo credit

How much buoyancy do you need and what is available? Three types are available: solid foam, inflatable, and self-inflating. Hartley boats sell a solid foam one and have a modular one that will fit many types of boat. Inflatable ones can be bought from chandlers and come in many forms: a thin 9 litre sausage that is permanently fixed to the front of the mast, a twin tube 8 litre one that goes up with the sail, various buoyancy bags fastened on with a length of rope. The only self-inflating one I know of is made by Secumar and comes in 20 litre and 40 litre sizes. These are quite compact (prior to inflation) and are not obtrusive. They work just like a self-inflating lifejacket. They need checking annually and once they have been used you will need to re-arm them.

You could make your own mast head buoyancy but how much buoyancy do you need? I have seen a 30 litre inflatable buoyancy bag made by Aero Luffspars in use. It was not windy but a 16 stone crew member was able to balance along the mast two-thirds of the way to the spreaders before the mast started to sink, whereas the original buoyant mast gave about 8 litres of buoyancy and I have inverted with this mast.

The choice, as always, is yours. Should you go for a sail or sit on the beach? Assess the conditions, take into account yours and your crew’s fitness. Is your boat set up for the conditions prevailing? Have you practised using all of the recovery equipment? Don’t be egged into sailing beyond your comfort zone. Whatever you decide, at the end of the day you must go away happy.

John Mellor – 2016