Man Overboard- How Likely are You to Fall off a Cruise Ship?

Man Overboard- How Likely are You to Fall off a Cruise Ship?

When you consider the number of cruise ships that are at sea at a given time, it is highly unlikely that someone ends up falling overboard.  However, on the few occasions it might happen, the media doesn’t pass up the chance to shine a spotlight.  We know the old expression if it bleeds it leads.  There should be a nautical version that reads “if it falls in the sea, it’ll be front page by three.”  We all know the mainstream media outlets love a good cruise disaster piece, and the general public seems to eat it up.  Through the years, many of these stories have come out and you hear me say, “You don’t just FALL off a cruise ship.”  For all intents and purposes, I generally stand by that sentiment.  In every instance of someone falling overboard, there is usually a story filled with inconsistency, ambiguity or some level of inebriation. 

Who ends up in the water?

There are two main reasons people might “fall” off cruise ships.  The first is from incidents caused by foolish actions usually fueled by a controlled substance.  Whether it’s alcohol or drugs, a person’s inhibitions, judgments and motor skills are all compromised and bad decisions are made.  You also never know what kind of baggage a guest might be bringing on board from an emotional standpoint, and they may not be in the best state of mind.  Intoxication, along with questionable mental health can create a (forgive the expression) perfect storm to induce disaster.  The most recent incident involved a gentleman by the name of James Michael Grimes.  During his appearance on Good Moring America, he said that he wasn’t drunk, but for some reason doesn’t remember the incidents that led to him falling off the ship.  Just after having a couple of beers and claiming first prize in the lip sync battle, he woke up alone, fighting off sea creatures in the Gulf of Mexico.  Thankfully, after treading water for 20 hours, Grimes was miraculously rescued.  While his endurance and sheer will to live are admirable, I do have questions.  And based on his appearance on the popular ABC morning show, he didn’t seem to have many answers. 

Coast Guard Rescues Man Overboard from Carnival Cruise Ship

Sadly, the other circumstance that seems to be the most likely reason for someone to end up in the sea, is suicide.  Whether guests leave any indication or not, many passengers have taken the opportunity to leave life behind by diving into the cold, dark ocean of their own free will.  On some occasions, these people are rescued and are found fighting for their lives, having had a change of heart.

What happens onboard when someone goes overboard?

If a passenger sees someone fall overboard, they are told to find a crew member, throw a life preserver and, if possible, have someone keep eyes on them for as long as possible.  The passenger will be asked to give a statement, but then should otherwise stay out of the way and let the emergency crew do their job.  The ship will stop and circle back to the area where the guest fell in.  It can take a cruise ship between 4 and 6 minutes to come to a complete stop, so time is absolutely precious in these situations.  The captain will send out a signal to the Coast Guard and any other vessels in the area, alerting them of the incident so they can keep an eye out for anyone in the area.  Different ships might have a variety of codes that alert the crew of a possible man overboard.  You might hear those codes announced over the ship’s PA system as the well-trained crew begin running down their checklists and fulfilling their responsibilities.  If no one sees the guest go overboard and someone is eventually thought to be missing, the captain will order everyone back into their staterooms for an immediate head count.  If the count is short, the previously detailed process will commence.

The modern-day design of cruise ships assures that man-overboard incidents are highly preventable.  In any scenario, a passenger would have to make a concerted effort to climb over the railing and jump off the side of any ship.  The level of effort varies from person to person, but regardless, it doesn’t “just happen.”  There have been a wide range of incidents where guests voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way due to tomfoolery or flat-out poor decision-making.  Sometimes these incidents have happy endings, and sometimes the results are tragic.

In 2018 a woman was rescued from the waters off the coast of Croatia after falling off a Norwegian cruise ship.  She had to tread water for over 10 hours and the coast guard eventually found her and brought her to safety.  Her story was that she fell from the ship, but nearby witnesses say that she jumped off after an argument with her boyfriend.  “Stupid woman.” Added the witness.

In 2019, s college student decided it was a good idea to film his death-defying leap from the 11th floor of one of the largest cruise ships ever built.  His buddy fired up the iPhone and the world watched as this kid climbed the railing of his balcony in a pair of cargo shorts and last night’s button-down shirt. After a quick wave to the camera he jumped, and then flailed uncontrollably as he plummeted toward the harbor at the Nassau Bahamas Cruise Terminal.  “Full Send!” was the caption of the Instagram post.  The student was not hurt but had to be rescued by local water police.

After an argument with his partner in 2016, a 31-year-old Texas man jumped from his balcony on board a Royal Caribbean ship, but then landed on a lifeboat.  After clinging to the lifeboat for a few minutes, the man lost his grip and fell into the deep, dark water of the Atlantic Ocean.  Tragically the man was never found and could not be saved.

There have been other silly incidents such as a teenager climbing down the side of the ship from one deck to another and a woman who scaled the outside of the ship’s ledge to secure a selfie.  Both of these incidents could have ended in disaster as the passengers likely did not consider just how reckless their behavior was.  Thankfully they were both unharmed. 

Aside from these, there have been many incidents of people falling overboard with varying degrees of preventability.  While it is absolutely NEVER a good time to play around on or near the ship’s railing, the odds of being rescued are greatly diminished at night.   It’s difficult to comprehend how vast, dark and unforgiving the sea can be when the sun goes down and temperatures below 70 degrees can bring on hypothermia in just a few hours.  While the damage to the person who ended up in the sea is obvious, it should not be forgotten that the collateral damage is also significant.  While rescue workers are well-trained and very good at what they do, these missions can be very dangerous for everyone involved.  Additionally, many who are still on board are likely to suffer some level of emotional distress.  Especially those who are close to the person who fell over.  Lastly, these rescue missions end up being quite costly leaving significant financial burdens for many who had nothing to do with the incident. 

While ships are prepared for these incidents and make every effort to reduce their likelihood, there will always be incidents like this each year.  If you are considering and cruise vacation and are, at all, concerned about the likelihood of you falling overboard, please understand that it is virtually impossible.  Just be sure to know your limit, stay aware of your surroundings and make responsible decisions. 

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