What Happens If You Fall Off A Cruise Ship?

It is a highly unlikely scenario, but you would be surprised how many times I used to get asked “what happens if I fall overboard”?

When someone falls overboard, a cruise ship will immediately turn around to search and recover them. As a maritime emergency, all other ships in the vicinity will also stop and help if needed.

During my time working on ships, I have taken part in countless exercises. No two scenarios are ever the same, but general principles do apply to them all. In the rest of this article, I will summarise the responses to a man-overboard situation and give you some tips for surviving should it ever happen to you.

What do ships do if someone falls overboard?

Falling overboard from any ship is considered a life-threatening situation, meaning that someone’s life is in danger. This automatically gives it the highest priority within categories of distress, a “Mayday”.

Pro Tip: There is debate as to whether a man-overboard should be classed as a “Mayday” or a “Pan-Pan”. Given that someone’s life is immediately threatened, I always class it as a “Mayday”.

As with any emergency, the crew on all ships routinely practise the actions to follow in the event of a man-overboard situation.

Raising the alarm

The first stage in any man-overboard situation is to raise the alarm. Ideally, the person falling overboard will have been observed so that the alarm can be raised immediately.

On cruise ships, it could be other passengers that see them fall. On cargo ships, it will be other crew members.

No matter who observes it, the first actions will be to shout as loud as possible “Man Overboard!”. You must draw as much attention to the scene as possible.

Simultaneously, you will throw anything that floats into the water to help the person that has fallen. Ideally, this will be a life ring, but anything that floats will do the job if one is not immediately available.

If anyone else has been alerted, get them to notify the bridge by any means they can. On cruise ships, you can usually telephone the emergency number from any of the ship’s phones. Alternatively, tell any crew member who will get the message to the bridge.

While someone else is notifying the bridge, you must keep looking and pointing at the person in the water. The reason you point is that it is too easy to lose visual contact and your hand can help you find them again quickly.

If you are on your own, then getting the message to the bridge is more important than keeping track of the person in the water. Make sure you notify the bridge by any means you can.

Pro Tip: If you can’t find a phone or crew members, use any means you can instead. Set off a manual call point, or bang on other cabin doors. The only priority is to make the bridge aware.

Response from the bridge

As soon as the message reaches the bridge, a well-rehearsed routine will begin immediately.

Simultaneously the “Man Overboard” button will be pressed on the navigation system, a life ring with highly visible orange smoke will be released from a bridge wing, and the ship’s whistle will be sounded with three prolonged blasts, each one being 4-6 seconds long.

The “Man Overboard” button places a fix on the navigation system in the location where the alarm was raised. This gives the ship a clear point on the chart to return to as soon as possible.

The life ring with highly visible smoke gives a visual signal so that the ship can easily see where they need to return to. The ring will likely be some distance away from the person in the water, but the important thing is that it will drift at the same rate as they do.

The blasts on the whistle not only alert everyone on the ship to the emergency, but it also alerts other ships within a couple of miles to the situation. Crucially, it should also be heard by the person in the water, giving them an immediate morale boost that the ship is returning for them.

If the ship is travelling slowly and the person was directly seen by the bridge, the ship’s rudders will be used to aim the stern away and immediately recover them. In reality, by the time the message gets to the bridge, the person is probably well astern and away from the propellers anyway.

After the immediate responses are complete, full attention turns to returning the ship to the last known position and searching for the person in the water. This is where the immediate GPS fix is so important.

The ship can return to the GPS location, then look out for the smoke that was released from the bridge wing.

Searching for someone in the water

Once the ship returns to the GPS location of the man-overboard, they can start searching for the person in the water.

The smoke marker that was released initially will give a great indication of the wind and tide as it will have drifted at the same rate as the person in the water. The crew can calculate its set and drift, and use that to retrace their path, making a fist pass at the search.

On cruise ships, you will hear announcements for mustering rescue boat crews. You may also hear announcements asking passengers to keep a close watch over the side, helping to look for the person in the water.

By this point, the bridge will have made radio broadcasts, alerting other ships and the coastguard to the emergency. You may see other ships turning to help in the search.

Assuming the initial report to the bridge was fast, the smoke marker and life ring can be used as a datum to search around. 

A publication called the “International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue Manual” gives details of different search patterns that could be used. Depending on the conditions and the number of other vessels that respond, one of the search patterns will be adopted to try and locate the person in the water.

Recovery of a man-overboard

Hopefully, the person in the water will be located reasonably quickly. Once they have been found, attention turns to recovery.

The rescue boat crews that were mustered early will be ready to launch as soon as the captain gives the order.

Vector drawing of a fast rescue boat
Illustration of a typical “FRB” or “Fast Rescue Boat”.

Once in the water, a rescue boat can manoeuvre close to the casualty and recover them into the rescue boat. Depending on their remaining strength, they can be assisted on board as much as necessary.

The rescue boat will then return to the ship and either be recovered with the casualty still on board or land them at one of the tender embarkation platforms.

Once back onboard, appropriate medical care can be provided, and other vessels will be stood down from the search and recovery operation.

What should you do if you see someone fall overboard from a cruise ship?

The most important thing to do if you see someone fall overboard from a cruise ship is to make sure the message reaches the bridge as fast as possible.

Simply shouting “Man Overboard” as loud as you possibly can is one of the most effective ways. Not because the bridge will hear you, but because other people close by will hear you and can help pass the message.

With their assistance, you can focus on throwing the closest life ring into the water while someone else telephones the ship’s emergency number.

If you are the only person around, throw the closest life ring into the water while making your way to the nearest telephone. As soon as you have passed the message on, return to the ship’s side and focus on watching the person in the water.

As you are watching them, literally point your hand in their direction. This serves two functions. It makes it easier for other people to follow the way you are pointing to see the person in the water. It also helps you to keep track of them. When you turn away for a split second, it is too easy to lose track of the precise spot you were looking.

If you have alerted the bridge quickly, the crew can start using the ship’s technology to commence searching and recovery of the person in the water.

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

Cruise ships have been designed to make it difficult to fall overboard.

There are handrails along the edges of all open decks and large glass partitions separating passengers from a fall to the sea.

Any areas where it is easier to fall overboard will be gated off to restrict access to crew members only. For example, the mooring decks where platforms can open out which may need handrails fitted each time before they are safe. Only trained crew are permitted in these sort of areas.

Despite the measures taken by cruise lines, people still do find ways of falling overboard every year. Most likely there will be some external influence, rather than a completely accidental fall.

Alcohol can make people behave irrationally, standing on the ship’s side rails, or sitting on top for a photo. The risk of falling overboard is heightened in these situations.

Unfortunately, the most common reason people fall overboard is when it is intentional. They may deliberately jump over the side, often from their own cabin balcony.

Do cruise ships have sensors to detect when someone falls overboard?

Most cruise ships do not have automatic sensors that detect when someone falls overboard.

There are a couple of solutions on the market that have been trailed on different vessels, but there is currently no solution implemented uniformly across the industry.

MOBtronic automatic man-overboard detection system

The automatic systems on the market today primarily rely on video surveillance around a vessel. They use software to monitor the camera feeds to detect when an object falls into the water.

PureTech man-overboard detection system

Man-overboard situations are often detected hours later when a person is reported missing. The security team review footage from overboard cameras looking for evidence. Should they find an event, the timestamp can be cross-referenced with the navigation system to get the position.

Automatic detection systems could reduce the time between an event and the detection of the event, increasing the chance of a successful recovery. Unfortunately, even today, these systems still are not commonplace within the industry.

Do you survive if you fall off a cruise ship?

If you do fall off a cruise ship, there are two elements that you need to survive.

Firstly, you need to survive the fall itself. Once you survive the fall, you then need to survive in the water until you are rescued.

Surviving the fall into the water is highly dependent on the height of the deck that you fall off. The higher you fall, the less chance there is of survival. 

Cruise ships can easily have 13-14 decks, and each of those is over 2m tall. This means that a fall from the upper decks will be >30m. Surviving a fall from that sort of height requires a great deal of luck with how you land.

Assuming you survive the fall into the water, you then need to stay afloat until help arrives. In calm conditions and salt water, a human can float quite happily on their back. If conditions are a little rougher, it takes significantly more energy to stay afloat because you need to keep your head clear of splashing waves.

If you manage to find a way of staying afloat, you then need to survive the temperature of the water. The following table illustrates the expected survival time for various sea temperatures.

Temperature (°C)Expected time of survival
<2<45 min
2-4<1.5 h
4-10<3 h
10-15<6 h
15-20<12 h
Table showing expected survival time and corresponding sea temperatures. Data from IAMSAR (Vol 3)

The colder the water, the less time you can expect to survive. Once the water is around 20°C, it is the same as room temperature and you can expect to survive until you get exhausted.

How can you increase your chances of survival if you fall off a cruise ship?

If you find yourself in the water, there are a couple of things you can do to increase your chances of survival.

Firstly, you want to find an easier way of staying afloat. If there is nothing buoyant nearby, you can improvise with some clothing. Tie together loose ends, then try to get as much air inside as you can.

A good example is a pair of trousers. If you tie together the two foot holes, you can hold air inside the rest and use them as a floating cushion.

You can assist your buoyancy in other ways too. If there is anything dragging you down, be sure to remove it. Things like heavy shoes and waterlogged clothing are examples of items that you may want to remove.

Once you have given yourself some buoyancy, you can then turn your attention to being located.

Normally when you are floating, only your head will be visible above the surface. You want to try and get something else to increase your visibility.

If you have any brightly coloured clothing, keep it ready to use when ships come closer. Waving any brightly coloured fabric can dramatically increase your chances of being seen.

If you don’t have anything available, even waving an arm in the air makes you easier to spot. 

The goal is to use anything you can to increase your visibility: clothing; a watch screen; your arms. Literally anything you can find can increase your visibility and increase your chances of survival.