Cruise Industry

What are the chances of falling overboard on a cruise?

Is the risk of falling overboard on a cruise ship a real threat? With two dozen reports of man overboard incidents from cruise ships annually, what are the chances of this happening to you?

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A guest aboard the cruise ship Amsterdam operated by Holland America Line was latest (at the time of writing) passenger to tragically lose their life at sea on a cruise – specifically from falling, or jumping, overboard.

It was reported on May 8th, 2019 that a female passenger aboard the ship was missing, and that the captain had turned the ship around to look for her.

The cruise ship was sailing a trans-Atlantic voyage from its namesake port of Amsterdam, Netherlands to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when the incident occurred. The passenger had last been seen at 1am on May 7th, but was still unaccounted for by 9am in the morning, prompting the search and rescue.

After several hours the search was discontinued, with authorities deeming it unlikely that the passenger would have survived in the cold and rough sea conditions for so long.

According to Cruise Law News, the last person who went overboard from Amsterdam was a 35 year-old Filipino crew member who disappeared in Alaskan waters in August of 2018.

Amsterdam is a sister ship to Rotterdam, pictured here at the Dubai Cruise Terminal

More recently, German pop singer Daniel Kueblboeck was reported missing at sea after going overboard from an AIDA Cruises ship sailing off the coast of Newfoundland.

The incident has reignited debate over cruise ship safety and whether the risk of falling overboard is one that cruise lines need to do more to mitigate.

While exact figures of passengers and crew that have fallen overboard are difficult to come by (and it appears no one has ever fallen overboard while cruising in the Arabian Gulf began in 2006), Cruise Junkie reports that at least 338 people have gone overboard from cruise ships and ferries globally since 2000.

That’s a sizeable number, and according to The Telegraph, 2015 saw the highest number, with 25 people falling from cruise ships during the year.

In that same report, Dr Simon Boxall, then-oceanographer at the University of Southampton, points out that given the height of modern cruise ships, the chances of survival are slim from the outset.

If you fall from the top deck of a modern cruise ship, you’ll likely break a limb or drown from the impact alone

“The initial few seconds are critical,” he told The Telegraph. “If you fall from a great height, not only do you risk breaking a limb as you hit the water, but it will knock all the air out of you and you can drown very quickly.”

But how easy is to fall overboard? Cruise ship railings are typically about four feet high, that means the railings are at or above waist height even for Turkey’s Sultan Kösen, currently the tallest man alive.

Cruise ship railings are at least four feet or more in height

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“Safety regulations, including uniform minimum railing and balcony heights, and structural barriers are also in place to prevent passengers who are acting responsibly from simply falling off a cruise ship,” says Sarah Kennedy, a spokesperson for CLIA, speaking to The Points Guy.

“There are no known cases of someone acting responsibly who has accidentally fallen over the railing of a cruise ship,” she added.

Passengers most often fall overboard due to irresponsible behaviour, such as this women who posed for a photograph on the railing of P&O Aurora in 2017, and this teenage boy who hung from the side of Carnival Liberty in 2016.

Despite this, there remain calls for the cruise industry to adopt MOB alarm systems that would automatically detect a man overboard situation – such systems have been deemed unnecessary by the US Coast Guard, largely because they do not appear to be as reliable as video surveillance.

In addition, if 338 people have fallen overboard and gone missing at sea since 2000, that needs to be compared against the more than 220-million people that have taken a cruise between 2000 and 2019.

To put that in perspective, in 2013 for the first time ever, more than 3-billion people travelled by plane, while 2014 was the worst year in recent history for plane crash fatalities, with the loss of two Malaysian Airlines 777s with a combined death toll of 537 people. That translates into a fatal accident rate of 1 every 2.80 million flights.

Applying the same odds to the cruise industry would mean that for every 700,000 or so people that take to the seas on a cruise, around 1 will fall overboard. According to the blog Strange But True, this means you have a greater chance of drowning in your own bathtub on dry land.

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