What is Most Likely to Cause Someone to Fall Overboard?

What is Most Likely to Cause Someone to Fall Overboard?

Are you going on a boating trip soon? You’re probably done with the preparations but are you ready for the voyage ahead? We know, there is nothing more idyllic than spending a weekend on a boat with friends and family – the wind brushing against your hair, the warm rays touching your face, and the cool spray on your skin.

While boating is a fun experience, it comes with a set of risks, too. Falling overboard is a risk that is ever present, so make sure to brush up on tips to ensure your safety and that of the other passengers. 

According to uscgboating.org, falling overboard is amongst the Top 5 causes of death in recreational boating accidents*.


Type * 2020-21

#Accidents #DeathsInjuries 
1Collision with recreational vessel137966831
3Collision with fixed object54262389
5Falls overboard 335181161

Disclosure: As a mark of respect and with due consideration to the seriousness of the topic, the pictures on this blog post do not visualise the graphic and intense nature of the incidents. The editorial is intended to create awareness and We hope the readership understands the informational nature of the article and take all due security and regulatory precautions required before embarking on recreational boating activities.

In this guide, we will answer the question what is most likely to cause someone to fall overboard, as well as teach you everything there is to know about how to prevent and respond to a man overboard situation.

What is a common cause or causes of someone falling overboard?


Accidents are always a possibility but we can always take the necessary measures to reduce their occurrence. One of the most common and unfortunate events that can happen while on a boat is a man overboard incident. So, what are the likely causes of someone falling overboard, you ask? Here are some of the most common factors that predisposes a man to fall off a yacht, boat, or any type of watercraft:

What is most likely to cause someone to fall overboard from small boats?

On a smaller boat such as sailboats and motorboats, the most common cause of falling into the water is the simple act of standing on a moving boat. Your chances of falling off the boat becomes higher when the boat suddenly sways hard while you’re in a standing position.

Simply put, carelessness is the number one cause as to why people fall and hit the water. Other causes include reckless behavior. Activities such as climbing the railings while in motion or taking snaps especially selfies in precarious positions too close to the railings may seem harmless but they can put someone life’s in serious danger.

What is most likely to cause someone to fall overboard? Alcohol and/or drug intoxication

Alcohol and/or drug intoxication is a proven risk factor, too. According to the Jim Walker, a maritime attorney general, being under the influence of drug and/or alcohol contributes to more than 40% of man overboard incidents. This is one of the reasons why most cruises enforce additional precautionary measures, including structural barriers, safer boat decks, high railings, and other safety precautions to prevent a fall.

Is suicide a common cause of man overboard accidents?

When answering the question of what is most likely to cause someone to fall overboard, suicide is one surprising but sad factor to consider. Suicide contributes to man overboard incidents more often than we imagine. Sadly, there are people who intentionally fall overboard to end their pain and suffering.

In most cases, individuals with suicidal tendencies ignore boat safety precautions altogether and plunge into the water as a means to fulfil their end goal. It’s difficult to ascertain whether suicide occurred or otherwise as most of these cases happen in less crowded areas of a cruise or whenever there are no people around.

Is ignoring the general rule and regulations for safety causes man overboard accidents?

Not following standard safety precautions imposed by the U.S. Coast Guard, such as holding onto the railing while the boat is in motion is also a common cause of falling into the water.

On larger boats or ships, the chances of falling overboard is slim, especially on fishing vessels or pontoon boats that do not journey along rough seas and large waves. Obviously, sailing in bad weather can lead to the increase in probability of such incidents.

What are the potential risks when someone falls overboard?

man-overboard off ship

Falling into the water is inarguably one of the most awful boating accidents that can happen to anyone. Like other means of transportation, boat rides comes with a few risks. Additionally, chances of being rescued are somewhat limited due to the vast area that a body of water covers and poor access to emergency aid.

What happens to an overboard passenger when he or she breaks the surface of the water?

Larger vessels feature higher decks from the water surface. With this in mind, the height of the fall will be a dozen meters higher as opposed to standard boats outfitted with lower decks. The chances of serious physical harm is essentially dependent on how someone falls into the water and their landing position.

Falling into the water from a considerable height is similar to falling on a hard surface. This is why divers typically go into the water from a low height and in a straight fashion, to carefully break the surface water without causing any physical harm on themselves. When a person has fallen overboard and hits the water in a bad position, this can result in broken bones and severe injuries.

What should you do if you fall overboard into cold water?

When an overboard person becomes submerged in freezing cold water, the body automatically goes into hyperventilation mode by letting out all the air inside, try to wheeze, and absorb as much air as possible, all of which can lead to accidental swallowing of the water.

It is hard to remain calm when there is a possibility of drowning in cold water. Cold shock is a common cause of death from accidental fall in very cold water conditions.

Whatever causes someone to fall overboard and into cold water, the body will suffer from various symptoms. After a few minutes in cold water, a man overboard will be unable to move his or her limbs fast. So, even the most experienced swimmers fail to reach the boat in time. The freezing cold also makes it hard for people who have fallen into the water to raise their head above it, increasing the possibility of drowning.

Why do rough weather conditions increase the chances of someone falling overboard?

Being near to the edge of the ship may cause someone to fall overboard. When traveling on rough conditions, a person is more likely to fall into the water from the sudden movements of the vessel. Many boats that carry passengers strongly advise people to remain seated and refrain from walking on deck during rough weather. One is at high risk of falling from the constant blowing, shaking, and rocking under bad weather conditions. To reduce the likelihood of going overboard, stay inside the deck as soon as you notice negative weather changes. Make sure at least one hand is in the railings at all times to safely walk on the deck.

On big ships, when people fall overboard, the chances of being drawn under the ship or getting dragged into the propellers are low. More than likely, a person overboard will be tossed away around the ship instead. Tracking people who fell overboard in rough waters becomes more all the more challenging.

Does oceanic wildlife affect the chances of survival when someone falls overboard?

Shark Attacks

Majority of oceanic life is generally docile and will not do any harm in case you fall into the water. This is the least factor that you should worry about but make sure to keep alert and keep your distance if you see any large aquatic life such as sharks lurking about.

Sharks do not attack humans unless provoked so be sure to stay away from them if you can and stay calm at all times. These creatures can smell blood from miles away, so if you are bleeding make sure to seek the attention of people onboard to ensure a prompt rescue.


When it comes to aquatic life, the most dangerous of them all are the jellyfishes and can most likely cause serious harm to someone who fell into the water. When a jellyfish comes in contact with your skin, they emit multiple shocks that can render your paralyzed before you can even be rescued. So make sure to keep a distance from them as well.

What is the first thing to do if you see someone go overboard?

First aid for man overboard 001

When a passenger falls overboard, here are the most important measures that you need to take immediately:

Reduce Speed and Use a Personal Flotation Device

One of the most crucial aspects of saving someone who has fallen overboard is by tossing them a personal flotation device – a life jacket, and in some cases, a life ring in foul weather. Even when a person has advanced swimming skills, a personal flotation device such as a life ring is proven to be more reliable. You can easily spot life rings as they are bright yellow in color, which also helps in keeping the victims in sight even in pitch black water.

Turn the Boat Around

After slowing down the boat, the next thing to do is make a prompt U turn to ensure speedy rescue. Be careful in maneuvering the boat, as turning back in high speeds may make it hard for you to stop the boat at the right spot, or worse, you may run over the person overboard, which easily makes a bad situation worse.

When turning back for rescue, reduce the speed and gently pull alongside the victim by approaching into the current or from downwind.

Place the Engine on Full Stop

Turn the engine close once you’re close enough to the victim. Don’t get too close to the passenger as you may place him or her in more physical harm if he or she gets dragged with the propeller.

Use a Reaching Pole or Assist to Climb Onboard

Whether it is day time or night time, it’s recommended not to come too close to the overboard passenger. Instead, you may come close enough so as to enable the victim to reach a pole, an anchored fishing rod, or a buoyant heaving line easily. Wait for the passenger to grab onto the rope or pole and slowly pull them over to the boat to avoid them from hitting against the side of the boat.

Pull the Passenger Onboard to Safety

Pulling someone who fell overboard can be tricky. The technique will largely depend on the size of your boat.

On larger boats, pulling someone into safety is easier since you can make use of ladders or pull them safely over the stern. On smaller vessels, it can get a little bit challenging. You need to make sure there is equal weight distribution on the ship to prevent it from flipping over.

Strategically move to the opposite side to create the perfect balance and wait for the victim to climb on board by himself or herself. On a smaller staffed boat, you may also ask the victim to climb in from the stern while assisting them to avoid falling off again.

What should you do to reduce the risk of capsizing or swamping your boat in rough water boat?

What should you do to reduce the risk of capsizing or swamping your boat in rough water boat

Drowning is the number one cause of deaths when falling overboard small vessels. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, almost 85% of passengers who go underwater and perish on a boating trip or voyage are those who don’t wear lifejackets. With this in mind, the best way to prepare and prevent potentially deadly accidents is to wear a lifejacket at all times.

When a small boat capsizes, is filled with water, and completely capsizes, you can simply hold onto the boat for support and to stay afloat until your rescuers arrive. In smaller boats, the most common reasons that boats capsize include being caught off guard by a large wave or sharp turn while maneuvering the boat around. Carrying excessive weight on a small boat is likely to cause someone to fall into the water, too. Be sure to enforce equal weight distribution in the boat, especially in poor weather.

Tips to prevent your boat from falling overboard incidents

  • Make sure to keep the center of gravity low avoid loading too much weight in your vessel. Follow three points of contact rule standing and while the boat is in motion.
  • Take corners and sharp turns in idle speed and safe angles.
  • Always wear non slip shoes as boat floors can be slippery at times. Be sure to don high traction footwear that you can wear on wet floors and on dry land.
  • Horseplay in risky areas is a big no-no. Playing around the pier, on the railings, and other parts of the ship increases your chances to fall overboard. Take precautionary measures and be cautious while having fun on a ship. Be aware of safety features such as hand and toe rails to reduce accidents and being accidentally thrown into the water.

Follow all these safety measures to ensure a fun and safe time on your boat.

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Picture of Lisa Hayden-Matthews

Lisa Hayden-Matthews

An avid Skier, bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.
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