Man overboard! How easy is it to fall overboard on a cruise ship, and how can you survive?


Florida Today

“Man overboard!”

That cry is one of the worst things you can hear while you’re on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean. It means someone has spotted a passenger or crew member either going over the side of the ship or in the water, and a life is at stake.

In July, the U.S. Coast Guard called off a search after a 30-year-old man was reported missing on Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Elation cruise ship and cruise officials said surveillance video showed him jumping off. Three weeks previous, a 42-year-old woman fell off the 10th deck of the Royal Caribbean International but was rescued by the ship’s crew. James Michael Grimes, 29, made national headlines after he survived 20 hours in the Gulf of Mexico last November.

How easy is it to fall overboard on a cruise ship?

It’s not easy at all.

All ships have “safety barriers that are regulated by U.S. Coast Guard standards and prevent a guest from falling off,” according to Carnival spokesperson Matt Lupoli. Every open deck and balcony is required to have railings “not less than 42 inches from above the cabin deck,” according to the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 (CVSSA), with thick metal or Plexiglas panels underneath to prevent anyone from slipping through.

That’s usually about chest height for the average person.

Some cruise lines are adding overboard detection sensors which use thermal cameras and micro radars to detect incidents and alert crew members.

How do people fall off cruise ships?

“I’ll stress that people don’t just fall over the side,” said Brian Salerno, senior vice president of global maritime policy at Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s leading trade group. “There are railings and they’re pretty high. It’s almost always the result of an intentional act.”

Standing on deck chairs, climbing on the railing and other unsafe practices can lead to tragedy.

Alcohol can play a role in overboard incidents, said Michael Winkleman, a maritime attorney with Lipcon, Margulies & Winkleman, P.A., who has represented travelers in overboard cases. “Usually, it’s just people not making smart decisions because they’re dramatically overserved and they end up going over,” he said.

But security cameras often indicate the jump was intentional, as seems to have been the case with 30-year-old Jaylen Hill in July. Hill was reported missing by family members on the Carnival Elation and the cruise line said surveillance video showed him jumping over the side. The U.S. Coast Guard search was called off about 36 hours later.

Occasionally it’s the result of a crime. In January 2018, Lonnie Loren Kocontes, 62, of Safety Harbor, Florida, was sentenced to life in prison for strangling his ex-wife and throwing her body off a cruise ship in the Mediterranean in 2006 in order to inherit more than $1 million.

That same year a Kansas woman died after falling from the balcony, but it wasn’t an accident. Eric Duane Newman, 55, of Topeka, pleaded guilty in 2019 to second-degree murder for strangling Tamara Tucker, 50, of Lawson, Missouri, and pushing her off.

What happens when someone goes overboard on a cruise ship?

The ship goes into emergency mode. The bridge will contact the Coast Guard and a search will begin. The ship will stop and the crew will try to pinpoint where and when it happened so they can start a thorough search in that area.

The captain also will notify other ships in the area who are then obligated to help search.

The ship will keep searching until the Coast Guard clears it to continue its voyage to the next port. The Coast Guard will continue searching, widening the radius of the search based on probable locations, conditions and ocean currents, until they feel they’re unlikely to find the person.

What should I do if I see someone go overboard on a cruise ship?

If you see someone fall or jump off a cruise ship, immediately throw them a flotation device if there is one nearby. Life buoys and orange life rings are available throughout the ship. Having something to hang onto increases the person’s chances of staying afloat and makes them easier to spot.

Shout out or notify a crew member as soon as you can and note the time so the bridge officers can identify the exact position of the ship at that time. Speed is of the essence. A cruise ship travels miles in a few minutes and does not turn around quickly.

Describe the person as best you can, including how fit they appeared, what they were wearing and if they were holding anything that might float, as all those factors will affect likely survival times.

What should I do if I go overboard on a cruise ship?

Don’t panic. Find something that floats, if you can. Treading water can be exhausting in the open ocean

“Even a small buoyant device will help you — something you can use with your arms around or your neck over just to help relieve some of the stress if you’re not a great swimmer or you’re having a hard time staying afloat,” survival expert Cat Bigney told The Insider.

Don’t drink any salt water and if you’re fortunate enough to have any fresh water with you, conserve it. If you can, pull off some clothing and wrap it around your head to avoid the sun.

If there are floating things around you, such as garbage, collect what you can to make yourself easier to spot. The Coast Guard has an increasing radius to search depending on where they think you are, and anything at all you can to do increase your chances can help.

How many people have gone overboard from a cruise ship?

Not very many as compared to the number of passengers over time. Worldwide, as of 2023, 386 cruise and ferry passengers and crew have gone overboard since 2000, according to a list from CruiseJunkie.

Between 2009 and 2019, there were 212 overboard incidents globally involving passengers and crew, according to statistics compiled for CLIA by consulting firm G.P. Wild (International) Limited.

Generally speaking, however, cruises are pretty safe. An estimated 20.4 million people took cruises in 2022, according to statistics site Statista, with signs of higher numbers this year.

Do people die when they go overboard?

Not necessarily. It depends on whether the person was conscious when they went over, if they were injured by the fall or impact with the water, how well they can swim or if they have a flotation device, the sea and weather conditions, the water temperature, and how quickly the crew or the Coast Guard can rescue them. There are also the risks from overexposure, hypothermia, dehydration, and predators.

A 42-year-old woman spent an hour in the water after falling from the 10th deck of the Royal Caribbean International in June but was rescued by the ship’s crew.

But unless the person was seen going over or spotted immediately, the odds may be against them. If the ship is moving the person may be rapidly swept away and if the location isn’t known a single person’s head can be extremely difficult to see in the vast, rolling ocean.

How many people are rescued after falling off a cruise ship?

Of the 212 listed as overboard between 2009 and 2019, only 48 people were rescued.

But miracles do happen. In 2018, a cruise ship worker was rescued when another cruise ship spotted him 22 hours after he went overboard northwest of Cuba, long after the Coast Guard had called off the search.