If your boat has sustained damage, whether as a result of collision, grounding or other incident there’s a whole slew of actions to take. This starts with ensuring the immediate safety of the vessel and her crew and culminates with informing insurers, appointing a surveyor if necessary and so on (see more on surveys here).

Clearly in the event of anything other than the most superficial of damage your immediate focus must be to ensure the vessel is safe, that there are no injuries to anyone on board, and to call for assistance if necessary. Once the boat is safely in port you can then contact insurers, boatyards, surveyors and so on.

Six people work to remove a broken rig off a sailing boat.

In the event of a broken rig assess whether it’s feasible to salvage the top section, or whether it will need to be jettisoned. Photo: Pantaenius


Following recent incidents in which yachts have lost their keels, the current advice is that, after any grounding, however light, the vessel should be lifted ashore and inspected to check for damage or movement to the internal structure or the keel bolts. However, before that and immediately after the boat touches bottom it’s important to assess whether it remains in a condition in which it can safely be expected to reach port. As a minimum, the floorboards should be lifted to check there is no ingress of water, no cracking of the internal reinforcing structure and that this remains firmly bonded to the hull. If cracks are found and can be seen to be moving it indicates that there is movement of the keel relative to the hull – a potentially very dangerous situation.

While motor boats don’t have a keel to worry about they can still suffer extensive damage to stern gear and rudders, even in a low-speed grounding. As well as inspecting the bilges and engine compartment(s) for water ingress, these items should therefore also be checked. In particular, check the steering appears to work and that each engine produces thrust in forwards and reverse power. A useful tip is to use a waterproof video camera tied to the boat hook to take a quick look for possible damage below the water.

Boat grounded on sand bank

In the event of grounding it’s important to check the whether the impact has caused damage to the structure that’s designed to spread the keel loads through the hull. 

Collision with another vessel

After a minor collision it may be obvious that any damage is only superficial, however, the general rule that you should check the watertight integrity of the vessel – as well as ensuring there are no injuries among your crew – still holds true. As with a road accident, don’t admit liability straight away, even if you believe the collision to be your fault, as there may be factors of which you are unaware that also implicate other parties.

three sailing boats on the water

Following a collision it may be possible to stay afloat even after quite extensive hull damage providing you stay on the tack that lifts the hole above the waterline. Photo: Lazarescu Alexandra

A collision with an underwater object should be treated in much the same way as a grounding. It’s important to note that most foam or balsa cored hulls have very little thickness in the outer skin – this is therefore fairly easily punctured, even if the inner skin remains intact. This will significantly reduce the stiffness of the structure and failure to notice and remedy the problem will lead to water ingress and further damage that will both impact safety and increase repair costs.

Rig failure

In the event of rig failure, first make sure that everyone on board is safe and check whether the rig is threatening to structurally damage the hull. If it is, then it will need to be cut free quickly, noting that internal halyards, as well as the standing rigging, will often hold a broken mast in position.

It’s good if you’re able to recover the rig and sails as this will reduce the cost of repair and may also shed light on reasons for the failure. However, this should not be attempted if there’s any risk of danger to any of the crew and in practice the only sensible option may be to jettison the rig.

Damage surveys

While relatively minor damage can generally be repaired by a boat builder without recourse to a survey, more serious problems need to be assessed by a surveyor whose expertise encompasses the type of vessel and construction methods. The surveyor can also recommend the repair schedule and, if necessary, oversee repairs. Surveyors tend to be very good at identifying the extent of any problem – which in some cases can extend several metres beyond the immediately apparent damage and may not be immediately apparent to a boat builder. Find out more about surveys here.

Insurance considerations

As with a road accident you should contact your insurers as soon as possible to notify them of the incident, even if there’s a possibility that damage is sufficiently slight you won’t need to claim. With relatively small claims that involve straightforward repairs a survey is unlikely to be required, providing the work is done by a reputable company. However, where the damage is more extensive, or is of a structural nature, then they will normally appoint a surveyor.

With a large claim insurers are also likely to appoint a firm of loss adjusters to act on their behalf – it’s important to understand that their role is to minimise the pay out. If your insurance was arranged through a broker then they will often act on your behalf to ensure an equitable settlement. However, even then, if the claim is likely to be large and complex then it’s often worth appointing a loss assessor. These work for the insured party to ensure they receive a fair settlement that covers all of the insured losses, allowing negotiations to proceed on an equal footing.

Find out more about boat insurance here. Also read about how to buy, sell and repair damaged boats.

Written by: Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes has more than 70,000 miles of offshore cruising and racing experience, in waters ranging from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular new boat and gear tests. He currently sails around 5,000 miles per year and in the past couple of seasons has cruised from the UK to the Azores, as well as winning his class in the 2014 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. He also owns two yachts, one based in the Mediterranean and the other in the UK.