What Happens When Someone Falls Off a Cruise Ship

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Thankfully, the annual number of incidents is low, but here’s what happens when a cruise ship’s worst case scenario becomes a reality.

Most cruisers have been there: While sipping a frothy cocktail out on deck, you peek over the railing to behold the power of the ocean and ship’s wake below, and can’t help but entertain a split second of anguish in your otherwise blissful cruise vacation. My goodness, you think, What would happen if somebody actually fell off this thing? Luckily, for the overwhelming majority of cruisers who hit the high seas every year, the answer to that nightmare cruising scenario rarely requires answering. However, when such tragedy strikes—and hits the headlines—we can’t help but shudder at the thought of it. Here, we’ve looked at the stats and spoken to industry experts for insight into the hows and whys behind a man-overboard incident, what the real risks are, and how the cruise industry handles it.

How often does somebody go overboard?

According to statistics compiled on CruiseJunkie.com, which documents man-overboard occurrences on passenger cruise ships and ferries, there were 27 worldwide cases in 2015, 16 in 2016, and—off to a disturbingly strong start as compared to last year—11 to date for 2017. Considering that more than 24.6 million passengers cruised last year, this is hardly an epidemic: Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the industry’s leading trade organization, cited man-overboard episodes occurring at a rate of about 1 per 1.3 million passengers.

Still, CruiseJunkie.com founder and Memorial University of Newfoundland professor Ross Klein cautions that the numbers shouldn’t be dismissed, and may actually be higher since they aren’t always reported by the cruise companies or media. He explains, “I suspect most passenger disappearances on ships frequenting U.S. ports are reported, but I don’t have the same confidence around disappearances in other parts of the world, and especially not with regard to the disappearance of crew members.”

Why does anybody fall overboard?

“I think the word ‘falling’ is a misnomer,” suggests Klein. “People don’t normally fall overboard,” he says, adding, “Some might jump—there is a proportion of cases known to be suicide—and some are pushed or thrown overboard.” Michael McGarry, CLIA’s senior vice president of public affairs, agrees, noting that cases are “nearly always found to be the unfortunate result of intentional or reckless acts.” Indeed, irresponsible behavior brought on by alcohol intoxication is the most commonly cited culprit, though, in many cases, the circumstances are simply unknown, given that there is frequently a lack of witnesses and evidence to turn to.

Do cruise ships do enough to prevent people from going overboard?

Chris Gray Faust, senior editor at CruiseCritic.com, emphasizes, “Cruise lines want passengers to be safe, and they focus a great deal on helping to ensure that.” Indeed, lines outfit their ships with features designed to prevent such occurrences, including minimum railing and balcony heights, though some industry critics feel that alcohol limits could be better imposed by a more carefully trained staff.

Miami-based maritime attorney and industry watchdog Jim Walker laments that apart from Disney Cruise Line, major cruise companies have avoided integrating the state-of-the-art “man-overboard detection systems” that are out on the market today. Citing high-tech features like radar, motion sensors, infrared technology, tracking capabilities, and alarms, Walker explains that these potentially life-saving systems “seem to be readily available, they seem to be reliable, and they seem to be long overdue.” Walker chalks up cruise line “penny-pinching” for the lack of implementation, while the CLIA has argued that these systems’ effectiveness in a wide range of sea conditions has not been sufficiently proven.

As such, the vast majority of cruise ships still rely solely on more primitive means to document cruise ship falls: eyewitness accounts and unmonitored surveillance cameras. However, the pending congressional legislation of the Cruise Passenger Protection Act, requiring more stringent interpretation of the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act of 2010’s ambiguous clause on necessitating man-overboard detection systems, may soon change that.

How prepared are cruise ships if somebody does go overboard?

When a man-overboard situation arises, cruise lines employ an established emergency protocol (following recommendations from the International Maritime Association), though precise procedures depend on whether the fall was witnessed or discovered after the fact. If it’s the former, the bridge will be notified, the emergency crew mustered, and life preservers thrown out to mark the spot where the person went down. The ship is then repositioned to return to the point of the incident, while a lifeboat is readied. Challenging search-and-rescue operations ensue, which may include the aid of other area ships, while the U.S. Coast Guard or other local authorities may send in planes or helicopters to help scan the waters.

Time is of the essence. If the fall or jump is not observed and immediately reported (which is most frequently the case), there is considerably less chance of the rescue being successful, leaving cruise lines dependent on reviewing closed-circuit camera footage. There is no pre-set limit to how long the search will last, however; in general, as long as there is hope, the search will continue.

What are the chances of surviving a cruise ship fall?

Sadly, most cases—an estimated 85 to 90 percent—end in death. Sea survival expert Mike Tipton, a University of Portsmouth professor and co-author of Essentials of Sea Survival, notes that variables like the height of the fall (which could lead to trauma from hitting a part of the ship), the temperature of the ocean, and the sea state and weather conditions (including visibility) all factor into the probability of survival, along with rescue team response time and the passenger’s own mental state and swimming capabilities. The majority of mortalities are owed to physiological responses to frigid seawater, including a “cold shock” gasp response and the ensuing physical incapacity that takes place during the first few minutes of hitting the water, and, later on, the potential for hypothermia setting in. “The best thing you can do in the first few minutes of immersion is try to rest, relax, float,” he says, suggesting that restricting movement and conserving energy is the best strategy to increase your survival odds.

Faust encourages cruisers to keep things in perspective, though, concluding, “It’s worth keeping in mind that the incidence of passengers falling overboard is incredibly low,” adding, that all the same, “Travelers should always be sure to stay alert, be cautious, and follow safety precautions, as they would on any vacation—whether at sea or on land.”

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Source: Condé Nast Traveler

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