Growing up in a beach town in southern California, where sailing is a popular activity, my informant has long been accustomed to its ways. She says it is a fun and exciting sport where controlling the boat is based on many aspects. The wind, water, and one’s body, all constantly moving components, are what make sailing function. With one heavy gust of wind, shift of body weight, or bad angle of hitting a wave, the boat can tip, flip, and turtle.
“Turtling” is when your boat capsizes, one hundred percent, upside down in water. This means the hull and mast are completely pointing down. The only thing visible from the surface of the water, is the bottom, convex, form of the boat, which resembles the top of a turtle shell.
She says this is a universal term used by sailors of all ages. It is most common in dinghies, which are small boats, although it can happen to large ships. Once the boat capsizes 180 degrees, the larger the boat, the harder it is to flip back over.
Turtles are known to be slow, and once flipped over, have a difficult time of flipping back. This particular flip for a boat, is the hardest to correct. It is ironic, that when a turtle flips upside down, their shell is facing down, when a ship flips upside down, the upward facing portion is the part that looks like a right side up turtle. Some sea turtles are very large, with shell spans that can reach the size of a small boat. Sea turtles as well migrate, and can been found off the coasts of every continent (1). This explains the universality of the phrase and how a boat in this position could really be mistaken for a turtle.
1. Nelson, David A. Life History And Environmental Requirements of Loggerhead Turtles. Rev. Washington, DC: Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 1988.