Flipping a Four: What to Do When the Unexpected Happens

It's rare that a crew flips a big boat, which makes it even more important for coaches, rowers, and coxswains to know what to do in case of emergency.

Video via rowingkid90. Boat and rowers are unrelated to the situation described below. Video is for reference only. Note also that these kids lost their balance when the coxswain pushed stroke’s oar down to the gunwale without warning (but that’s a whole other article…)

Suddenly, there I was, sitting at a 45-degree angle to the water. Both ports had lost their handles, the green grips were pointing towards the drab, Autumn early morning sky. I grabbed the port gunwale from my spot in the coxswains seat, but the centers of mass and buoyancy had reached the point of no return. The white Vespoli hull rolled to starboard, dumping its human cargo into the cool Anacostia River.

The women’s 4+ I was coxing that Sunday morning had been sitting ready at the finish for what was to be a 5k training piece back to the boathouse. But something went wrong on the very first stroke. The coach would later explain: “Perhaps there was poor timing (getting up to the catch too fast and waiting with blade squared out of the water) + hesitance/lack of confidence approaching the catch + poor handle control + inappropriate reaction to the boat being down to one side + more poor handle control (letting go of oars) + unable/not knowing to feather starboard blades to help right boat & ports unable to regain control of their oars.”

In other words, it wasn’t just one thing, or one rower that caused the crash to starboard and the eventual flip.

And then, just like that, we were in the river. A river that I’ve rowed, coxed, and coached on since 2001. Besides going overboard for a learn-to-scull class more than a decade ago, I hadn’t actually been in the Anacostia since. (Wait, there was that one time I slipped stepping out of my launch and ended up waist deep grasping for the dock…) The Anacostia has always been the step child to Washington, D.C.’s grander Potomac River, and hasn’t been swimable or fishable in decades (although there’s incredible on-going efforts to turn that around).

I’d guess that most people who flip a boat don’t have an existential awakening as they hang on an oar for floatation … but as my NK headset gave me a tethered lifeline to the boat (the cox box cup works upside down!), and my legs started the eggbeater kick I learned as a kid, I looked up from the spot where the Anacostia meets the Potomac and saw the Washington Monument, Reagan National Airport, Hains Point, National Defense University, and Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. The shock of the spill took my breath away – surprising since I’m a confident swimmer with long-distance open water swims experience. But then I thought of the thousands of times I’d been right on that spot, but never in that spot. The water was refreshing, and a bit clearer/cleaner than I expected. I didn’t want to get out.

Then I heard the coach giving directions, and I checked in with the rest of the crew. Was everyone breathing? Yes. Was everyone ok? Yes.

If you’ve never flipped a big boat, consider these checklists:

Rowers and Coxswains

  • stay calm
  • hold onto the hull for floatation
  • listen to your coach for directions*

You should also prepare for:

  • shock and resulting shortness of breath
  • water up your nose, and in your eyes (possibly effecting contact lenses)
  • losing personal belongings from the hull (shoes, extra layers, glasses, etc.)
  • potential for clothing or long hair to get caught in the rigging


  • if you bring your smartphone in the boat, always put it in a dry bag or waterproof case that floats
  • unplug/disconnect from the coxbox so you’re free to move around
  • if you have tools or other items, tuck them into your pants or sportsbra to keep your hands free for holding onto the hull, treading water, and/or swimming to the launch
  • check in with your crew and make sure everyone is ok


  • Be prepared: your standard safety plan should include having a marine radio or cell phone with you. Know local emergency numbers and channels for local harbor patrol and police/rescue; and/or be able to contact other coaches on the water
  • appraise the situation, inform other coaches of the crew’s location and immediate needs (safe return of other boats), and discuss rescue/recovery efforts
  • tell rowers to buddy up so everyone is in charge of looking after someone else
  • *direct your rowers to remove the oars one at a time and bring them to the launch
  • direct your rowers to grab the far gunwale and role it towards them, while pushing the rigger that’s in the water away from them with their hands and then their feet
  • once the hull is upright, direct the rowers to enter the launch one at a time from either side, or the bow, but definitely away from the engine in stern
  • if you have a bailer, take the time to get as much water as possible out of the hull (if you don’t have a bailer in your launch, see my notes on rafting below**)
  • if the boat is rowable, and the crew wants to continue rowing, get them back into the boat one at a time starting from the middle of the hull (in a four, 2 or 3 seat) and working to stern and bow

Our hull was swamped and we didn’t have a bailer, so instead of rowing 5k with gallons of river water splooshing in the footwells, we packed up the launch with the oars and one by one the rowers slithered onto the launch deck.

**The hull was rafted to the launch by threading the stern and bow lines through the port riggers and tying them off on the stern and bow deck cleats. It’s a smart idea to tuck a couple of PFDs between the hull and the launch, too, to protect both boats.

We were lucky that the weather was calm, and the temperature about 70°. But coaches should be sure to have a Kippy Kit in the launch that includes emergency blankets, in case hypothermia becomes a concern.

Every body of water is different and the weather changes from day to day. There’s no one way to handle a flipped hull, but being prepared with the suggestions above is a good start.

For more safety tips, watch the USRowing safety video: http://www.usrowing.org/safety-video/