Cruise Facts: Truth About Falling Overboard

On a cruise ship few stars can be seen at night because the ship itself blasts so much light pollution that you can see nothing but black. It’s precisely how and why stars are not visible from the surface of the moon. Gazing over the stern rail, I pondered this one night after working midnight buffet on Carnival Conquest. Aft, port, and starboard were all inky, impenetrable black.

“What happens if I fall overboard?” a man had asked me earlier. It was such a common question that my answer had become habit. “The ship will stop and a boat will pick you up.” Such was the truth, if only half of it.

THE TRUTH ABOUT FALLING OVERBOARD

Below me the wake of the ship churned the brown coastal waters off Louisiana. The waves looked very small indeed from the top decks. If the hundred-plus foot fall did not kill the passenger, he would utterly disappear in the giant swells. Fortunately, it is unlikely modern azipod propellers would chop him into chum, because the propellers remain safely below the hull, rather than behind it. I almost wonder if such a fate would be better, though. Certainly quicker and less terrifying than being alone in the dark, desperately struggling to remain atop that delicate skin of surface above the gargantuan, unfathomable volume of unknown below you. Then you tire, sink, and become one with it forever.

Safety training was very clear in the case of a man overboard: FIRST throw a life-ring, THEN call the bridge. People assume the life-ring is simply a flotation device, but it is in fact much more. A person’s head will disappear from sight within seconds from the deck of a big ship. After throwing a life ring we were trained to grab someone, anyone, to physically point at the swimmer and not stop until he’s found, no matter how long it takes. That physical act of pointing is paramount, for even if aware of the swimmer, he’ll be lost in less than one minute at sea. But at night? And if no one sees you fall?

That very cruise someone had, in fact, gone overboard. Rumors of how and why among passengers and crew were rampant. The leading story among the former being that two honeymooners were arguing and there was a push. Crew thought differently. Another suicide, most agreed. For suicides are not so rare on cruise ships. More than a few folks intentionally spend their every last penny on a final week of wild abandon and, late on the final night, jump overboard. What better way to ensure no one will rescue you? Barring the occasional philosophic waiter, how many people are looking aft of a ship at 3 a.m.?

UNEXPLAINED DEATHS ON CRUISE SHIPS

Though statistically utterly insignificant, unexplained deaths on cruise ships do happen. Because most occur in international waters, reporting obligations and behavior are decidedly less than altruistic. Cruise lines invariably fudge reporting, because people read headlines, not articles. Whether it’s a suicide or not matters little to critics, who pounce upon any hint of cruise line recklessness. Even if it is a suicide, days can pass before verification from land-based authorities, even with the presence of a note. By then, sensational headlines would have already blown things wildly out of proportion.

But any premature death is a tragedy. This much is true. All should be investigated and ships aren’t transparent enough. That is also true. But do we need to be worried about dying on a ship? That’s the question to ask. According to David Peikin of CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association), between 2003 and 2012 there were 59 fatalities resulting from ships’ operations, including crew members. That’s out of 239 million passengers who sailed, and not including natural causes or falling overboard.

59 out of 239,000,000. Hmm… that’s a 0.00002% fatality rate. If that number isn’t resonating with you, allow me to put it into perspective by other means: between 2003 and 2008, 108 people died from cattle-induced injuries across the United States, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). America’s population was then a tad higher than the statistic quoted—240M vs. 300M or so—but that still makes cows TWICE as likely to kill you than anything on a cruise ship. Further, that cow statistic is for only a five year period, whereas the cruise article is citing eight years. Even more surprising is that driving accidentally into a cow on the road is NOT part of this statistic. Thus, pure bovine malevolence is twice as likely to kill you as being on a cruise. Am I being flippant? Of course. But humor is a great way to dispel fear, especially irrational fear.

On that dark cruise outside the swamps of Louisiana, nobody knew for certain what happened, what caused the mysterious overboard death. An investigation was eventually resolved somewhere on land, as is always the case. The only fact the crew knew for sure was that the man was never found until he washed up on the Gulf Coast several days later. I focused on a floating piece of flotsam and watched it disappear into the night. I counted off the moment. It was lost to the blackness within fifteen seconds.

Former cruise line employee Brian David Bruns is author of the greatest-selling cruise book in history, Cruise Confidential. Four books in all, the Cruise Confidential series has won over a dozen awards, both in the U.S. and overseas, and been featured on ABC’s 20/20 on two separate occasions. 

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