Is Sailing Dangerous? (How Safe or Dangerous Is It?)

is sailing dangerous

Sailing just demonstrates the sheer power of nature. With nothing protecting you from the deep dark unknown but the cold hull of your watercraft, there’s an eerie discomfort that can settle in the pit of your stomach as you contemplate the endless possibilities and potential dangers of sailing.

We’ve all heard those strange, hair raising stories of boats toppled over by waves, and fanciful tales of deep sea creatures taking vessels into the depths of the big blue. But let’s get real for a minute - is sailing dangerous? Here’s what you need to know.

What are the Dangers of Sailing?

Dangers surround us at every corner. Heck, even just taking the stairs could put you in a neck brace. So it’s important to keep in mind that just because risks exist on the water, doesn’t mean you’ll have to avoid sailing all together.

The purpose of knowing these dangers is to give you a better understanding of the realities of sailing and what you can do to prepare. There are multiple potential accidents waiting to happen, and anticipating them should help you curb the risk.


By definition, capsizing or keeling happens when a boat is overturned by strong winds or waves. In some cases, the boat might be turned on its side, or it might turned completely upside down. The process of bringing it back right side up is called righting.

According to the US Coast Guard (USCG), about 71% of sailing deaths and 51% of injuries on non-motorized sail boats were the result of capsizing. Studies have also found that the most common causes of capsizing accidents include (1) weather and (2) hazardous waters.

Falling Overboard

Closely related to capsizing, falling overboard often happens when sail boats are subject to tempestuous water conditions and elements. Studies have found that 71% of deaths occur after an individual is thrown overboard.

Some of the factors that contribute to the fatality of people who fall overboard include intoxication and not wearing a proper personal flotation device. Unfortunately, the numbers demonstrate that falling overboard significantly increases the risk of fatality for any kind of maritime accident.


Bet you though pirates were a thing of the past. Popular in the South and in Southeast Asia, modern-day pirates are either small-time groups that loot boats and take valuables, while others are organizations of pirates that are interested in stealing oil cargo. These days, pirates are heavily armed and use sophisticated strategies and electronic devices to victimize watercrafts.

According to statistics, there were about 195 reported incidents of pirate attacks in 2020. That indicates a 20% increase from incidents recorded the previous year. The numbers also show that pirate attacks are more common among anchored vessels, with pirates taking the opportunity to loot gear, equipment, and valuables when the crew least expects it.

Sharks and Other Animals

If there’s anything that people fear about the open ocean, it’s the fauna. Sharks are particularly daunting, especially with the media serving up more than imaginative renditions of alleged attacks. But according to statistics, there might not be a lot to worry about.

Out of a total of 129 cases of shark attacks in 2020, only 6 involved sharks attacking a boat. And according to statistics, a shark attack might be the least of your worries. Whales have been known to ‘attack’ boats too, but more often than not, these incidents involved juveniles that likely weren’t able to assess the distance.

Other experts also assume that the reason why marine wildlife tend to approach boats is curiosity. However that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of them possess the power to capsize a vessel.

Bad Weather

While capsizing is the most common reason for falling overboard and for maritime deaths, bad weather is the leading cause of capsizing. Strong winds and waves can easily topple over a boat, causing water to rush over the deck, and tipping the hull over to its side.

Of course, it’s easy to tell a boater to just keep an eye on the weather and to avoid sailing out when the seas are rough. But for longer expeditions that can take weeks or months, bad weather conditions become a potential reality.

Disappearance or Getting Lost

According to sources, there are less than two hundred ships that go missing each year, taking their entire crew with them. In all fairness however, these numbers have been declining throughout the years thanks to the advancing technologies that authorities use to locate these missing vessels.

It’s important to note though that the most common reasons for boats going missing include bad weather and lack of boating experience. This highlights the need for careful planning and practice to curb the risk.

Sailing vs Driving - What’s More Dangerous?

how safe is sailing

If these statistics have placed sailing in a bad light, then you might want to compare the activity to a very similar task you do on the daily - driving. According to experts, sailing is more than twice safer versus driving.

There were 767 recorded sailing deaths in 2020, compared to an average of 1.3 million driving related deaths in the same year. Of course, the fact that there are about 276 million registered cars in the United States versus 17 million recreational boats may play a role in the frequency of deaths and accidents in each of these categories.

That said, your chances of meeting fatality on a boat are about 1.19 in every one million. However your odds of meeting a fatal car crash are 1 in 107. All of that considered, it’s easy to see that sailing is significantly safer than driving. So avoiding it all together because of the potential dangers might seem counterintuitive if you drive on the daily.

Tips for Reducing the Risks of Sailing

So, is sailing dangerous, or better yet, how dangerous is sailing? Definitely not as dangerous as driving. Nonetheless, there are some unique risks that could potentially endanger your sailing trip or worse.

That said, it’s important that you take the time to prepare for your boat trip before you head out. Here are some things you can do to reduce the risks of sailing.

Check the Weather and Your Route

If you’re going on a day trip, then it’s imperative that you check the weather for guaranteed sunny skies. As much as possible, avoiding setting sail if there’s even just a slight chance of rain or strong winds, especially if you’re not too experienced sailing through a storm.

Another thing to ascertain would be your route. You might think that getting lost is a farfetched reality, but it can happen. Knowing your route, the key locations along the way, and any emergency services you can contact throughout the trip can make it possible to curb the risk of getting lost.

Obligate All Passengers to Wear Their PFD

People tend to get complacent when it comes to wearing a personal flotation device. But studies have found that wearing a PFD once you’re actually in the water can be almost impossible. And since the lack of a PFD is heavily associated with drowning deaths, it’s important that you wear yours at all times.

Instruct all of your passengers to wear their PFD as long as they’re on the water. This should help minimize the chances of drowning in the scenario that anyone gets tossed overboard.

Avoid the Bottle

Booze and boats go together like chocolate and ice cream. But studies have found that a large percentage of accidents on the water happen because of intoxication. If you’re keeping alcohol on board, make sure you avoid taking any if you’re the designated captain.

Otherwise, make sure there’s someone on board who knows how to drive a boat and who stays free of alcohol so you can get home in one piece. If there’s no way to guarantee that, then you might as well keep your boat free from booze.

Familiarize Yourself

As the old adage goes, practice makes perfect. If you want to keep your boat safe for all of your passengers, it’s imperative that you know exactly how to operate it. Unfortunately, a huge chunk of maritime accidents are the result of insufficient training or knowledge on how to operate a boat.

If you’re not confident that you know everything there is to know about your boat, then you might as well take lessons or instructional classes on sailing. It’s also important that you know where any emergency facilities are like life savers, fire extinguishers, lifeboats, and the like, so you aren’t caught off guard during an accident.

Safe Sailing

So, is sailing dangerous, or how safe is sailing? That depends on how well you prepare yourself and your vessel. The chances of coming face to face with a maritime accident are 1.19 in every 1 million, but that doesn’t mean you can play it cool. Make the right preparations, practice your operating skills, and sail responsibly to reduce the risks and enjoy a hitch-free excursion with your closest family and friends.

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