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

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We’ve all had that thought. You’ve had a few drinks, peered over the railing, and thought, “What happens if you fall off a cruise ship?”

Luckily, that nightmare scenario is an extraordinarily rare occurrence.

Around 20 to 25 people fall overboard every year. But with over 30 million people sailing yearly, the chances of falling overboard on a cruise ship are less than 1 in 1.3 million.

Although it doesn’t happen often, we can’t help but shudder when we hear such incidents occur. We’ve looked at the stats and talked to industry insiders to see the risks and how cruise lines are preparing for these worst-case scenarios.

What Happens If You Fall Off a Cruise Ship?

Safety equipment Life buoy or rescue buoy floating on sea to rescue people in man overboard incidents

Cruise lines follow emergency procedures in the rare event that a person falls overboard.

If a passenger jumps off a cruise ship, the ship will mark the location of the fall and return to the site to search for the individual. The search can take several hours and may involve passengers and nearby vessels.

The safety protocols enacted by crew members follow the recommendations of the International Maritime Association.

The search-and-rescue operation that ensues may include the aid of other ships in the area, while the US Coast Guard and local authorities may send planes or helicopters to assist in the search.

The exact procedures depend on whether another passenger witnessed the fall or the ship’s man overboard system alerted the crew. When a passenger or crew member falls overboard, time is of the essence.

If a fall is not observed and immediately reported, the chance of rescuing the victim is considerably smaller.

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.

Here are some of the actions cruise ships take when someone falls overboard:

The Location is Tracked

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

The priority for the crew is marking the location of the fall. Cruise ships take many miles to come to a stop or slow to a speed where they can safely turn around.

Crew members will throw a life ring into the water to provide a visible marker for the location of the fall.

Knowing where the passenger fell overboard is crucial in determining a starting point for the search.

That said, ocean currents and waves may mean a passenger will travel far away from their initial location when the ship returns.

An Emergency Announcement Will Alert Crew

Megaphone Announcement speak on a cruise ship

The ship will inform the crew about the incident over the loudspeakers.

The staff on a cruise ship receive training to act quickly in emergencies. Their training includes regular man overboard drills to always prepare for disaster.

When the crew conducts a man-overboard drill, the captain notifies passengers ahead of time to eliminate any scares or confusion.

Cruise ships use the code “Oscar Oscar Oscar” to inform the crew that someone has fallen overboard. When an incident occurs, the captain will broadcast the code throughout the ship in an announcement made by the captain.

I do not recall any incidents of passengers falling overboard while cruising. However, aside from the secret code broadcasted throughout the ship, cruise ships rarely provide much information to passengers.

The Cruise Line Will Alert the Appropriate Authorities

The cruise line will contact the appropriate authorities as soon as possible. The US Coast Guard and local authorities will often assist in the search.

Of course, the response depends on how close the ship is to land and its location.

The cruise line will notify the FBI if a US citizen is reported missing. If there are no witnesses or video footage of the incident or foul play is suspected, the FBI may choose to investigate the circumstances leading to the man overboard incident.

When incidents occur at the port or international waters, the cruise ship will alert local authorities to investigate if they see fit.

Suppose the cruise line has video or witness evidence that doesn’t suggest foul play. In that case, the FBI may choose not to investigate the circumstances leading up to the incident unless a family member insists.

Every cruise line has at least one staff member trained in evidence collection and investigation techniques. This specially trained crew member will take charge of the case until the FBI or local authority can take over.

The cruise line will question witnesses and family members regarding the activities and location of the victim leading up to the incident.

The Ship Will Turn Around, and Other Ships Will Assist in the Search

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

Most estimates suggest that a cruise ship can take over a mile to stop or slow down enough to turn around safely.

Cruise ships travel around 22 knots and can’t stop as quickly as a car.

The time needed for cruise ships to stop and turn around may mean that the person who fell overboard has traveled and is no longer at the original location. This delay further complicates search efforts.

Additionally, the cruise ship will ask nearby vessels to assist in the search. And, it’s not just cruise ships that will help.

When a passenger falls overboard, vessels of all kinds will join the search to increase the odds of finding the missing person. Nearby vessels such as ferries and cargo ships will assist in the search.

Smaller boats, helicopters, and planes may help if the missing person is close enough to land.

Do Cruise Ships Stop if You Fall Overboard?

If a person falls overboard, the cruise ship will initiate emergency protocols. Crew members will throw life preservers to mark the location, and the vessel will stop and return to the accident location to search for the missing passenger.

Cruise ships may spend several hours searching for the missing passenger and ask nearby vessels to assist in the search.

Cruise ships can take up to a mile to stop or slow down to a speed where they can safely turn around.

Unfortunately, less than 25% of missing passengers survive. Several factors influence the chance of surviving, including time of day, weather conditions, and location.

How do People Fall Off Cruise Ships?

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

The most common ways passengers fall off a cruise ship are:

  • Intentionally committing suicide
  • Passengers under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Guests committing reckless acts (balcony hopping or hanging from the railing)
  • Murder – Someone deliberately pushing a passenger overboard
  • Accidental falls

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

To date, there haven’t been any reported incidents of passengers falling overboard due to the negligence of the cruise ship.

Most of the time, people who fall overboard do so intentionally or result from reckless behavior.

Cruise ship security cameras often capture evidence that many falls are intentional, though there are many cases where the circumstances are unknown.

How Many People Fall Off Cruise Ships?

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

In general, 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, the US government doesn’t compile statistics on the number of incidents on cruise ships.

With over 30 million passengers sailing yearly, the chance of falling off a cruise ship is incredibly low.

Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the cruise industry’s leading trade organization, reports that falls occur at a rate of 1 per 1.3 million passengers.

It’s important to note that the numbers may be higher since the cruise lines or media may not always report them.

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

Year Passengers and Crew Overboard Incidents Cruise and Ferry Passengers During the Year
2019 32 29,700,000
2018 26 28,500,000
2017 17 26,700,000
2016 16 25,200,000
2015 24 23,100,000
Yearly passenger and crew overboard incidents. Incidents provided by Cruise Junkie and passenger volume provided by Statista. Note: passenger volumes are estimates and are rounded figures.

How Many People Survive Falling Off a Cruise Ship?

Sadly, most cases end in death. Approximately 75% percent of man-overboard incidents result in death. Only one in four instances result in survival.

Several variables affect the likelihood of survival, including:

  • The height of the fall
  • Ocean temperature
  • Ocean currents
  • Injury on impact with the water
  • Injury from hitting the ship during the fall
  • Which deck the passenger fell from
  • The time of day
  • Maritime conditions and the height of the waves
  • Whether the passenger is intoxicated
  • Whether the passenger can swim

The height of the fall can result in trauma from the water’s impact. The world’s largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas, is 18 decks tall. A fall from that height could cause serious injuries, if not death.

If someone jumped off a cruise ship, they could hit the boat on the way down or get sucked under the ship’s propellers, causing a quick death.

Additionally, freezing ocean temperatures can lead to a cold shock response that paralyzes the body.

Hypothermia and getting dragged under the ship’s propellers are also risks.

Weather conditions such as ocean currents, wave height, time of day, sunlight, and more can impact search efforts.

Cruise ships can take up to a mile to slow down. During this time, passengers can suffer terrible fates. And when the ship returns, the person might not be in the same spot that they fell.

If no one is around to witness the passenger fall overboard, the crew might not know that someone has fallen overboard until several hours later.

When the crew is alerted to a man overboard situation, safety protocols first note the ship’s position so they can return to the same spot and begin a search.

If several hours pass before the crew is alerted, there’s no way to know where the incident occurred. Without knowing where to start the search, the likelihood of survival is low.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the probability of falling overboard is incredibly low and not a worry for most cruise passengers.

As long as you’re not reckless, you don’t need to worry about falling off a cruise ship.

Bottom Line

It is extraordinarily rare for passengers to fall overboard on a cruise ship. In most cases, passengers who fall overboard do so intentionally or result from reckless behavior.

In the rare event that a passenger or staff member falls off a ship, the cruise ship will turn around and conduct a coordinated search effort with the Coast Guard, local authorities, and nearby vessels.

FAQs

How Many People Fall Off Cruise Ships?

Around 20 to 25 people fall overboard every year. But with over 30 million people sailing yearly, the chances of falling overboard on a cruise ship are less than 1 in 1.3 million.

What Does ‘Man Overboard’ Mean?

“Man overboard” is a maritime term for someone falling off a ship and needing rescue. When a man overboard incident occurs, cruise ship captains follow emergency procedures to try and rescue the passenger or crew member.

What Should I Do If I See Someone Go Overboard?

If you see someone fall overboard, find a crew member as soon as possible.
All of the crew members receive training on security and reporting incidents. Once a crew member is alerted, they will relay the message to the ship’s emergency services team.

Witnesses and family members will need to provide a report to guest services. It’s essential to keep out of the way of emergency personnel to not interfere with the rescue efforts.

Will My Ship Be Delayed If A Passenger Goes Overboard?

As a result, you may lose time at a port of call or experience alterations to the itinerary. A search and rescue effort may take several hours and could cause a delay in reaching the next port.

Will The Ship Cancel Activities If A Passenger Goes Overboard?

While man overboard incidents may affect your port itinerary, they generally don’t involve cancellations to the onboard activities.

The onboard atmosphere will likely change if the incident occurs during the day and people witness someone fall. Crew members will do everything possible to get the atmosphere back to normal and provide counseling to those who need it.

Do Cruise Ships Have Man Overboard Sensors?

Most cruise ships don’t have specific man-overboard sensors. However, they are becoming more common with advancements in fall detection technology and cruise lines continuing to improve the safety and security of guests and crew.

Ships that don’t have overboard systems must rely on other passengers or crew to see the person fall overboard and alert the staff.

If a person falls overboard without anyone seeing them, it may be hours or days before anyone notices that the passenger is missing. At this point, the cruise ship may not be able to identify when the incident occurred or how it happened.

There are CCTV cameras throughout the cruise ship. However, the cruise ship doesn’t continuously monitor the security cameras. Typically, the cruise line and investigators use CCTV footage after the fact as evidence in determining the cause of the fall.

Are Guests Entitled to Compensation if they Witness a Passengers Fall?

Guests who witness a man overboard incident are not usually entitled to compensation.

Cruise lines will provide councilors on the ship to speak with guests about the incidents if required. Witnessing an event of this magnitude can be traumatic for family, friends, and passengers.

Is Jumping Off a Cruise Ship Illegal?

While there aren’t any laws against jumping from a cruise ship, those that survive may face legal consequences from the cruise line, including disembarkation at the next port and a lifetime ban from cruising.

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Marcello

I’ve been cruising since I was 11 years old. I love the freedom that cruising provides, meeting new people, and exploring amazing new ships. I love to share my passion for cruising and travel with readers.

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Get the latest travel tips, news, and advice to get the most out of your next cruise vacation.

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