What are cruise ship overboard detection systems and why doesn't every ship have them?

The Harmony of the Seas cruise ship as it sails from the STX Saint-Nazaire shipyard, western France, out to sea.
The Harmony of the Seas cruise ship as it sails from the STX Saint-Nazaire shipyard, western France, out to sea.

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Sherry Boleen got up early to watch the sunrise with her family during a cruise to Mexico over Thanksgiving. But when she arrived at her siblings' cabin on Carnival Cruise Line's Carnival Valor ship around 6 a.m., her stepsister said their brother, James Michael Grimes, never came back to the room.

The family was sailing with roughly 20 relatives, so Boleen thought maybe he'd slept in one of their rooms. "He's notorious for just falling asleep anywhere, anytime," Boleen, who is 31 and lives at Fort Benning in Georgia, told USA TODAY. "And so I was like, 'Or he's just asleep on a lawn chair somewhere or whatever.' "

Sherry Boleen with her brother, James Michael Grimes.
Sherry Boleen with her brother, James Michael Grimes.

After looking for him around the ship to no avail, she said, she notified the cruise line, which began an hourslong search that ended with the U.S. Coast Guard rescuing 29-year-old Grimes from the water later that day around 8:30 p.m. after he had gone overboard.

James Michael Grimes spent approximately 20 hours stranded at sea.

Grimes, who was found about 20 miles south of Southwest Pass, Louisiana, told PEOPLE magazine in December that he remembered having some drinks and winning an air-guitar competition before waking up in the water. He did not respond to interview requests from USA TODAY.

While the incident ended with his safe return to shore, it raised questions about cruise ship overboard detection systems – a new technology that aims to cut down on response time and notify the crew as soon as someone goes overboard.

Carnival spokesperson Matt Lupoli told USA TODAY in an email that as soon as the line was notified, "Carnival Valor’s crew immediately searched the ship, retraced the ship's route, and coordinated with U.S. Coast Guard officials."

"During the search, another mariner spotted Mr. Grimes in the ocean and contacted the USCG, and the rescue was made," he said. "We remain greatly appreciative of all the efforts that brought Mr. Grimes to safety."

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What are cruise ship overboard detection systems?

The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 requires passenger vessels operating in the United States to "integrate technology that can be used for capturing images of passengers or detecting passengers who have fallen overboard, to the extent that such technology is available."

Cruise lines were given an option because when the law was passed, there were no available products that could reliably detect passengers going overboard, according to Brian Salerno, senior vice president of global maritime policy at Cruise Lines International Association, the industry's leading trade group.

"The problem was tuning the technology just right so that you wouldn't be getting false alarms every time a seagull flew by the ship," he said. "It's just human nature, if you have alarms going off constantly, they become less and less important."

Carnival Valor
Carnival Valor

In the years since, multiple companies have worked to develop more dependable technology, and CLIA and its member lines worked with the International Organization for Standardization to develop a standard for them.

The standard was finalized around the time the COVID-19 pandemic began, Salerno said, which delayed the process, but some ships have adopted the detection systems.

Boleen said security on board told her that while the Carnival Valor had camera footage from the bar where her brother was last seen, it did not have cameras everywhere because it was an older vessel.

Lupoli said cameras "may not have 100% visibility" in certain places on ships. "We do know that he left a bar on Deck 3, and we later found his clothes and wallet on Deck 6," he said.

In addition to security cameras, Lupoli said, all ships have "safety barriers that are regulated by U.S. Coast Guard standards and prevent a guest from falling off."

Cruise ships have railings to help prevent passengers from going overboard.
Cruise ships have railings to help prevent passengers from going overboard.

How do overboard detection systems work?

Technology company MARSS' MOBtronic system is among those that developed the system for cruises.

The product, which uses thermal cameras and micro radars to detect when someone has gone overboard and can alert crew members, along with other features, is installed on "quite a few" vessels, including one cruise line's entire fleet, according to CEO Johannes Pinl, though he could not name specific lines.

MARSS' MOBtronic system is among those designed to detect when people go overboard.
MARSS' MOBtronic system is among those designed to detect when people go overboard.

He said he expects the system to receive certification in accordance with the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standard within the first half of 2023.

Salerno said that certification will give cruise lines greater confidence in spending money on overboard detection technology. For its part, MOBtronic starts at around $200,000, Pinl said. Typically, between four and 12 sensor stations are mounted on the ship's exterior, depending on its size and design.

"Overall, considering how much a cruise ship costs ... these investments are minor," he said.

How many cruise ships have overboard detection systems?

Salerno declined to name specific lines but said a number of ships have installed the detection technology. "I think we'll start seeing more and more of the detection equipment once the certification process is complete," he said.

He said he expects that at least one manufacturer will receive certification in accordance with the ISO standard this year.

  • Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America Line and MSC Cruises did not answer USA TODAY's questions about whether or not they have the systems installed on their ships and referred inquiries to CLIA.

  • Royal Caribbean International and Princess Cruises did not respond to USA TODAY's questions about whether or not they had installed the technology.

  • A spokesperson for Disney Cruise Line confirmed the technology is available on its ships, but was unable to share more details.

How many people go overboard on cruise ships?

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. Only 48 people were rescued.

"I'll stress that people don't just fall over the side," said Salerno. "There are railings and they're pretty high. It's almost always the result of an intentional act."

The CVSSA requires passenger vessels to have rails that are "located not less than 42 inches above the cabin deck." Many cruise ships complied with that even before the law was enacted, according to Cmdr. Jason Kling, Detachment Chief at the U.S. Coast Guard's Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise, which conducts compliance inspections of cruise ships embarking passengers in U.S. ports or embarking U.S. passengers.

Why do people go overboard on cruises?

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.

He noted that cruise lines have procedures in place to prevent overserving passengers, but in instances when a passenger believes the cruise line contributed to their going overboard, Winkleman said, they could bring a lawsuit. Most suits of that kind are resolved with confidential settlements.

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"My advice, which I think applies across the board with cruising, is don't leave your common sense at the port," he said.

Regardless of the cause, Salerno said overboard detection systems are aimed at improving the likelihood of a positive outcome. "The sooner the search can begin, obviously, the better the chance of recovery," he said.

In the search for Boleen's brother, she said she believes the crew could have benefitted from an overboard detection system. "I feel like it just would have saved so much time," she said.

Have you or someone you know had an emergency during a cruise sailing?

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cruise ship overboard detection systems: What are they?