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


by Marcello

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. 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 taken a look at the stats and talked to industry insiders to see what the risks are, and how cruise lines are preparing for these worst-case scenarios.

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 ship 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 are ever found. Several factors influence the success rate, including time of day, weather conditions, and location.

How do People Fall Off Cruise Ships?

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 man overboard situations are intentional, though there are many cases where the circumstances are unknown.

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 (including balcony hopping and hanging from the side of the ship)
  • Murder – Someone intentionally pushing a passenger overboard

How Often Do People Fall Off Cruise Ships?

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 on a cruise ship each year, the chance of falling is incredibly low. According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the cruise industry’s leading trade organization, man overboard incidents occur at a rate of 1 per 1.3 million passengers.

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

What Happens If You Fall Overboard?

Cruise lines have a set of emergency procedures that they follow in the rare event that a person falls overboard.

When a man overboard situation occurs, cruise ships follow an established emergency protocol that follows the recommendations of the International Maritime Association.

Once a passenger falls overboard, the crew notifies the bridge, emergency crew members are mustered, and life preservers are thrown overboard to mark the spot. The ship repositions to return to the incident location and readies a lifeboat.

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 security 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, as long as there is hope, the search will continue.

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

The Location is Tracked

The first 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 life rings 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 that 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 members on a cruise ship are trained to act quickly in emergency cases. Their training includes regular man overboard drills to always prepare for disaster.

When the crew is conducting a man-overboard drill, passengers are notified ahead of time to eliminate any scares or confusion.

On a cruise ship, the code “Oscar Oscar Oscar” is used 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. 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 efforts.

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

If a US citizen is reported missing, the cruise line will notify the FBI. 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.

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 at speeds around 22 knots, and they 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 there is a man 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 effort.

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

Bottom Line: What Happens If You Fall Off a Cruise Ship?

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.


What Does 'Man Overboard' Mean?

The term “man overboard” is a maritime term used when a person falls off the ship and needs 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 don’t interfere with the rescue efforts.

Will My Ship Be Delayed If A Passenger Goes Overboard?

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

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.

If the incident occurs during the day, the onboard atmosphere will likely change. Crew members will do everything in their power to get the atmosphere back to normal and minimize any disruptions.

Does A Criminal Investigation Take Place When Someone Goes Overboard?

While the US Coast Guard is in charge of search and rescue operations, any missing US citizens must be reported to the FBI.

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

Suppose the cruise line has video and/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.

Can A Person Survive Falling Off A Cruise Ship?

Sadly, most cases end in death. Approximately 85 to 90 percent of man overboard incidents result in death.

Several variables affect the likelihood of survival. The height of the fall can result in trauma either from the impact with the water or hitting the side of the ship. Additionally, the ocean temperature can lead to a cold shock response that paralyzes their body. Weather conditions and a person’s swimming abilities also factor into the probability of survival.

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

Guests should always follow safety procedures, be cautious, and stay alert, as they would on any vacation on land or at sea.

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 specific sensors have to 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 them. 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.

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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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