Man Overboard: What Happens If You Fall Off a Cruise Ship?

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View at sea with the blue ocean horizon and a clouded sky a lifering on the foreground deck of a cruise ship

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The ocean is a vast place of adventure and relaxation for over 30 million cruise passengers per year. But amid this maritime wonder is a rare but genuine danger: the risk of falling off a cruise ship.

Around 20 to 25 individuals fall overboard every year, often due to intoxication or deliberate actions. However, with odds of 1 in 1.3 million, such incidents are exceptionally uncommon.

Cruise lines follow strict safety protocols established by maritime safety standards, ensuring crew members are ready to act swiftly and efficiently in man-overboard situations. Modern cruise ships are even equipped with advanced technologies designed to detect people when they go overboard from a cruise ship.

Let’s explore how prevention, personal vigilance, what happens when someone falls off a cruise ship, and the outcomes.

What Happens If You Fall Off a Cruise Ship?

Two Princess Cruises cruise ships in open sea off the coast of Bimini, Bahamas to exchange provision and transferring crew.Pin

If you fall off a cruise ship, the situation is serious, and immediate action is necessary. A “man overboard” incident prompts the vessel to follow a strict emergency protocol.

The ship makes an emergency announcement to inform the crew (and sometimes passengers) of the man overboard situation. All crew members are trained to respond to these emergencies, including conducting a search and rescue operation.

The secret code used to alert cruise ship crew is “Oscar Oscar” to indicate a man overboard situation​.

The moment an overboard incident is detected or reported, the ship’s officers are alerted. Crew members mark the location of the incident throwing flotation devices into the water to mark the spot and aid the person in the water​

The ship will turn around and return to the location of the incident.

Unfortunately, stopping a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean isn’t easy.

Cruise ships travel at 22 knots and take over a mile to stop and turn around. By the time the cruise ship returns, the person is unlikely to be at the original location. Ocean and wind cause the individual to drift away from their original location, highlighting the importance of immediate action when someone jumps off a cruise ship.

A small rescue boat searches for a passenger who fell of the side of a cruise ship in Alaska. The rocky shoreline is visible in the backgroundPin

The bridge team notifies the appropriate authorities and enlists the help of nearby vessels who join the search. It’s not just cruise ships that aid in the search. Nearby ships in the area, like cargo ships, the US Coast Guard, and fishing vessels, join the search for the missing passenger.

Time is of the essence when a passenger falls overboard.

If a fall is not observed and immediately reported, the chance of rescuing the victim is considerably smaller. New cruise ships have advanced overboard detection systems. But older vessels rely on someone witnessing the fall and alerting the crew.

There is no time limit for how long a search will last. In general, search efforts continue as long as there is hope that the person is alive.

How Do People Go Overboard?

A life preserver on a cruise liner used when someone falls overboardPin

There are many reasons people fall off cruise ships. Here are some reasons why individuals might find themselves unintentionally over the guardrails:

  • Excessive Alcohol Consumption: You might lose your balance and coordination after having a few drinks too many, making it risky to lean or climb on railings.
  • Reckless Behavior: Engaging in unsafe activities, like trying to move from balcony to balcony, standing on chairs, or climbing the railings, can result in a fall.
  • Intentional Acts: Unfortunately, there are instances where a cruiser purposefully jumps off the cruise ship to commit suicide.
  • AccidentsAccidents are rare, but accidents do happen—perhaps when leaning too far or slipping on a wet deck, leading to a situation where a passenger goes overboard.

It’s worth reminding you that man-overboard incidents are extremely rare.

It is uncommon for a cruise passenger to “fall” off the ship. The railings on cruise ships are reasonably high and reach at least chest height for most passengers.

Most people who fall from a cruise ship do so intentionally or result from reckless behavior.

How Many People Fall Off Cruise Ships?

Beautiful view from deck of cruise ship. sunset. row of lamps. lifebuoyPin

An average of 20 to 25 people fall off cruise ships each year. Because a man overboard situation can happen on any vessel in any part of the world, no government authority compiles accurate statistics on the number of overboard incidents on cruise ships.

Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the voice of the world’s cruise industry, reports that the odds of falling overboard are astonishingly slim. According to CLIA, falls occur at a rate of about one in 1.3 million passengers.

The chances of falling overboard are incredibly low.

Cruise ship safety is paramount, and many of those who go overboard do so intentionally by jumping from a cruise ship railing or falling while taking risky actions like climbing balcony railings.

However, it’s worth mentioning that the actual figures might be slightly higher. The reporting of these incidents can sometimes fall through the cracks, not captured fully by cruise lines or the media spotlight.

The table below shows how many people fall overboard on cruise ships yearly compared with the number of passengers that sail on cruise ships and passenger ferries. The numbers were compiled by Cruise Junkie.

YearPassengers and Crew Overboard IncidentsCruise and Ferry Passengers During the Year
20193229,700,000
20182628,500,000
20171726,700,000
20161625,200,000
20152423,100,000
Yearly cruise passenger and crew overboard incidents. Incidents are provided by Cruise Junkie, and passenger volume is provided by Statista. Note: passenger volumes are estimates and are rounded figures.

How Many People Survive Falling Off Cruise Ships?

Norwegian Jewel in Skagway Alaska performing a lifeboat drillPin

Sadly, most cases of falling off a cruise ship end in death. Approximately 72% percent of man-overboard incidents result in death. Only around 28% of instances result in survival, highlighting the importance of cruise vessel security and safety measures.

There are several factors contributing to the low survival rate.

Firstly, the height of the fall significantly impacts survival chances. Cruise ships are towering structures; the world’s biggest cruise ships are over 20 decks high. A fall from that height is like hitting a concrete wall due to the water’s surface tension at high speeds. The impact when you hit the water can cause severe injuries, making it difficult to stay afloat, or even instant death.

If you survive the fall, the ocean and weather conditions impact your survival chances.

The water temperature plays a significant role. Cold waters lead to hypothermia, drastically reducing survival time. Ocean currents and the time of day (affecting visibility for rescue efforts) are also critical factors.

Notably, being in good physical condition can enhance one’s ability to survive. For instance, a woman credited her fitness and yoga practice, allowing her to survive after she fell overboard on NCL’s Norwegian Star cruise ship and tread water for 10 hours (full story at ABC News).

Ultimately, while the prospects may seem grim, survival is not impossible. The stories of missing passengers or crew members who have survived a fall over the side of a ship serve as stark reminders of the human will to live and the importance of safety and preparedness when embarking on a sea voyage.

Safety Measures and Technologies

Megaphone Announcement speak on a cruise shipPin

When you’re cruising on the open sea, your safety is paramount. Cruise ships have various safety features to prevent and respond to man-overboard incidents.

Preventative Measures:

  • Railings: To start, the railings on cruise ships have high railings to prevent accidental falls. They’re a physical barrier between you and the sea and are designed for your protection, helping prevent overboard incidents on cruise ships. It’s crucial that you avoid climbing or sitting on them.
  • Surveillance Systems: CCTV cameras monitor public areas on the ship 24/7. The cameras help detect if a passenger falls overboard or risky behaviors that could lead to such situations. Unfortunately, if no one is watching the cameras, they won’t alert crew members to incidents.
  • Man Overboard Detection Systems: Some cruise ships have sophisticated man overboard detection systems. These systems use sensors, radar, and thermal imaging to detect a person falling into the water and instantly alert the ship’s crew. Many older ships don’t have specific man-overboard systems; instead, they rely on someone witnessing someone fall and alternating the ship’s crew.
  • Restricted Access: Access to certain areas of the ship is limited, especially during rough sea conditions or at night, to reduce the risk of accidents. Crew members close off specific decks during high winds to prevent accidental falls.
  • Crew Training: Crew members undergo rigorous training in safety procedures, including procedures for responding when someone falls overboard. Cruise ship staff train to act quickly and efficiently to rescue overboard individuals.
  • Passenger Education: Cruise lines provide safety information and educate passengers on the importance of responsible behavior on board through safety videos, briefings, and literature.

These systems work together to detect a person falling into the ocean swiftly. This often enables a quick response from the crew.

Prevention Tips to Prevent Falling Overboard

View of the horizon from a balcony on the Oasis class cruise ship wonder of the seas with breakfast room service on the tablePin

While enjoying your cruise, your safety is crucial.

Staying alert and following certain guidelines can significantly decrease the chances of going overboard.

Here are a few tips to ensure you stay safely aboard.

  • Pay Attention to Safety Briefings: Pay attention to the in-cabin safety video and muster drill. You’ll learn important safety information, the location of life jackets, and what to do during an emergency.
  • Avoid Excessive Alcohol Consumption: It’s ok to drink, but don’t go crazy. Alcohol inhibits your judgment and decision-making and reduces your balance.
  • Adhere to Designated Areas: Stick to public areas and avoid restricted zones. These areas are off-limits for a reason and can be dangerously close to the ship’s edge.
  • Supervise Children: Closely watch children and ensure they understand the importance of avoiding railings.
  • Don’t Climb or Sit on Railings: Getting a better view is tempting, but climbing the railings is extremely risky. Keep both feet on the deck at all times.
  • Be Mindful of Weather Conditions: Inclement weather can make decks slippery. Be extra cautious and avoid deck areas if the ship is experiencing rough seas.

Do Cruise Ships Stop if You Fall Overboard?

Yes, cruise ships do stop if someone falls overboard. When a passenger or crew member goes overboard, the ship’s crew initiates an emergency protocol to address the situation. This protocol involves multiple steps designed to maximize the chances of rescuing the individual.

The moment an overboard incident is detected or reported, the ship’s officers are alerted. Crew members mark the location of the fall while the captain turns the ship around to begin searching for the passenger.

However, due to their size and the momentum they carry, cruise ships take a mile to stop and turn around. The process of stopping a cruise ship is complicated and takes time. During that time the person overboard could drift away from the initial location due to ocean currents and wind.

Article by

Marcello De Lio

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