Is going overboard during a cruise something you need to worry about? (Photo: iStock)
With headlines like these, one could think there’s an epidemic of people going overboard on cruises.
On Nov. 12, a woman aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Pearl went overboard as the ship was sailing the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba. In a statement, the cruise line told Yahoo Travel that during the chartered cruise, “a female guest was observed intentionally going overboard… The ship’s crew immediately initiated rescue measures, including deploying multiple rescue boats and notifying the Coast Guard and other relevant authorities.” The woman has not been found.
That apparent suicide attempt came almost a week after a more high-profile incident that was caught on video when 35-year-old vacationer Bernardo Elbaz fell from Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas ship after clinging to a lifeboat as horrified fellow passengers looked on. His body hasn’t been found.
These stories highlight a scary reality of cruising: sometimes people fall overboard in cases that often end tragically. While there isn’t always dramatic video, these cases almost always make national news in a way that, for instance, accidents in hotels do not. All the hype about these man (and woman) overboard incidents may lead one to wonder how real the danger is.
Yahoo Travel looked at the numbers and talked to a number of experts. We found that, as in many high-profile safety issues, there are some concerns that are overblown and some that are more than warranted.
What the numbers say
Let’s get one simple fact out of the way first: this is a very rare thing we’re talking about. “Publicly available data shows that incidents of man overboard (MOB) on cruise ships are very uncommon,” Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a cruise industry trade group, tells Yahoo Travel. In the average year, about 20 people fall off cruise ships. Compare that to the nearly 22 million people who cruised last year. That’s roughly one person going overboard for every one million cruise ship passengers.
Related: I Was on the Oasis of the Seas When the Man Went Overboard
This year has seen a slight uptick. According to CruiseJunkie.com, which looks at passenger overboard incidents going back to 1995, there are now 26 reported cases of people going overboard so far in 2015. That’s the highest number since 2009, when there were 25. But 17.2 million people took cruises in `09, roughly 5 million fewer than this year. So it would appear the percentage of man overboard cases may actually be lower. Either way, the numbers don’t quite indicate that this is some kind of a cruise ship epidemic.
The vast majority of people who enjoy cruises do so without falling overboard. (Photo: iStock)
“I can’t argue with that point.” says CruiseJunkie.com founder Ross Klein, an associate dean in the School of Social Work at Memorial University of Newfoundland and a frequent expert witness in trials involving cruises. But just because the number is small doesn’t mean he thinks these cases should be dismissed. “I think the idea is that [man overboard cases] are frequent enough that people should be concerned,” he says.
Klein notes that because these cases aren’t always reported by the cruise lines or the media, we may never know exactly how big a problem this is. “I’m sure the numbers are a lot higher,” he says.
The booze/bad decision combo
It is extremely difficult to accidentally fall off a cruise ship. So how does it happen? Yahoo Travel asked sea survival expert Mike Tipton, a University of Portsmouth professor and co-author of Essentials of Sea Survival. His answer was blunt: “No idea. But I suspect alcohol plays a role.”
Indeed, in many of these man overboard cases, intoxication and/or another ill-advised action on the part of the victim played a role in their misfortune. And that’s a problem on cruises, where many vacationers have been known to abuse alcohol amid a party-hearty atmosphere. While it’s unknown if last Thursday’s apparent suicide victim aboard the Norwegian Pearl was intoxicated, it wouldn’t be surprising. Norwegian Cruise Line confirms the suicide happened during a chartered cruise called “The Mad Decent Boat Party,” which is advertised as “a vacation packed with beer filled wishes.”
Alcohol also appears to have been a factor in that tragic caught-on-video incident aboard Royal Caribbean. Reports say Elbaz had jumped off his seventh floor balcony and struck the metal support for a lifeboat two decks below.
“Clearly he was drunk and put himself in a nightmare situation,” his family’s attorney, Michael Winkleman, admits to People. “Yes, he intended to do something dramatic and he certainly put himself in a dangerous situation but I don’t think there was any attempt to kill himself.” (Royal Caribbean disputes that. In a statement to Yahoo Travel, the cruise line says, “The Broward Sheriff’s Office determined that this case was a suicide.”)
Other high-profile person overboard cases have similar backstories. A woman who admitted she was “extremely intoxicated” fell off the Carnival Destiny in 2012. She was rescued and later sued the cruise line, accusing it of plying her full of alcohol and not rescuing her fast enough.
Even in cases where alcohol use isn’t confirmed, some man overboard cases appear to be the result of extremely bad decisions one wouldn’t expect from a clear-headed passenger. A college student who died earlier this year after falling off the Carnival Glory reportedly had tried to climb over a balcony railing. And in 2009, a man aboard the Carnival Sensation apparently jumped off a balcony after an argument with his wife. He was rescued.
Dr. Bradberry tells Yahoo Travel that alcohol has played a role in many of the cases he’s witnessed as a cruise ship physician. He recalls a case of a young man who got drunk on a cruise ship one night and accidentally fell overboard. “His buddies assumed that he had ‘gotten lucky’ in the disco and did not become concerned about his absence until late the following afternoon,” Bradberry recalls. He says the passenger was successfully rescued after treading water for over 12 hours.
“Excess alcohol consumption not only impairs one’s judgement and coordination, it also reduces one’s ‘fear factor,’" Bradberry continues. “Intoxicated individuals are thus more prone to engage in risky activities when intoxicated and do so with impaired performance. The result may be, for example, a 22 year old intoxicated male who decides to stand on the first railing to urinate over the back of the ship at 2:00 a.m. [only to find himself] treading water.”
Because alcohol consumption can also exacerbate bipolar disorder and depression, Bradberry says it often plays a role in shipboard suicides as well. He says a passenger on one of his ships who’d suffered a breakup and lost thousands of dollars in a casino decided to jump overboard. “Before hitting the water, he had enough time during the seven-story fall to reconsider his action and changed his mind about wanting to die,” Bradberry recalls. The passenger was rescued but, as Dr. Bradberry notes, “many [of these cases] do not have the same happy ending.”
CruiseJunkie.com’s Ross Klein estimates that some combination of ill-advised decisions, intoxication and suicide may account for as many as two-thirds of passenger overboard incidents. As for the rest, they may be foul play or, as is more often the case, unsolved mysteries.
“I think what is most problematic is that about a third of the cases are mysterious,” Klein says. He recalls a case of one young man who went overboard. “His family was told there was video surveillance showing the person jumped overboard,” says Klein. “Because of that report of a video, Klein says, the death was ruled a suicide. But then the family asked to actually see the video. "The FBI went back to the cruise line and said we want to see that video,” he says. “ It turns out the video didn’t show anything at all. The FBI had believed what the cruise line told them without looking at the video.”
Many MOB cases go unsolved. (Photo: iStock)
Klein remembers another passenger whose mysterious disappearance from a cruise was deemed a suicide, even though she was last seen making plans to play bingo with her mother and daughter. He also brings up a couple whose disappearance was deemed a suicide even though their families maintain the two had already started planning their next vacation. In such cases where there’s no body or no witnesses to a cruise passenger’s disappearance, often the only story we get is from the cruise line — whom Klein says might not always be open about such things.
“It’s not in their interest to be totally forthcoming,” he says of cruise lines, “in part because they’re gonna be vulnerable to a lawsuit. But probably even more so, it’s not good for business to say people are disappearing from cruise ships.”
What can you do if you fall overboard?
Again, it’s extremely unlikely, but what do you do if you fall off a cruise ship? First, the bad news: your chances of survival aren’t great. CruisePage.com looked at 86 man overboard cases from 2000-2015; the victim survived only 19 of them. That’s a survival rate of about 22 percent. “If a person survives the impact with the water and manages to not drown, there is very real risk of being run over by another ship, especially at night,” says Dr. Bradberry. There’s also the danger of hypothermia and, yes, sharks.
Related: What Happens When Someone Falls Overboard on a Cruise?
Still, sea survival expert Mike Tipton tells Yahoo Travel it is impossible to increase your odds. “Be fit,” he says. “Try and float rather than swim. If you can float, do nothing until your breathing is under control.” Tipton warns of the “cold shock” people experience when they’re suddenly immersed in cold water; the phenomenon temporarily causes you to breathe deeply, thus putting you at risk of taking in too much water.
Once that passes, Tipton recommends you just stay still. “Assume a fetal position if you can,” he says. “Wrap your arms around your body to minimize body surface area exposed to the water.” Other than that, he says, stay positive and await rescue.“
What can cruise lines do to keep you from falling overboard?
This is where the issue gets contentious. The cruise lines say they do more than enough to combat this problem. "Uniform minimum railing and balcony heights, structural barriers, along with many other safety measures prevent passengers who are acting responsibly from simply ‘falling’ off a cruise ship,” CLIA tells Yahoo Travel.
Critics say cruise lines can do more. “There still appears to be too many cases of a passenger going overboard at night, unnoticed by the crew or other passengers, with the cruise ship sailing on cluelessly,” maritime attorney Jim Walker tells Yahoo Travel. He points to technology that uses laser sensors to detect when someone falls overboard and alerts the crew. Cruise lines, with the reported exception of Disney, have balked at installing the technology, which they call ineffective.
Then there’s the issue of alcohol, which is a common denominator in all kinds of cruise calamities, from man overboard cases to sexual assaults. Dr. Bradberry says cruise lines already have policies in place to prevent passengers from abusing alcohol. “Similar to on land, cruise ship bartenders are trained to recognize intoxication and to ‘cut off’ passengers,” he says. In extreme cases, he says, on-board physicians and security officers can revoke a passenger’s drinking privileges for the remainder of the cruise. “A simple adjustment to the passengers computerized account can effectively block further alcohol purchases,” he says.
Some critics contend, though, that cruise lines are more inclined to keep the booze flowing, even if the results potentially are dangerous. “We’re dealing with an industry that sells all-you-can drink packages on board their ships,” says Klein. “They can’t sell unlimited alcohol and then say it’s the passengers fault for getting drunk."
But is it reasonable to ask cruise lines to forgo the considerable profits they get from alcohol, which is enjoyed by millions of cruising vacationers who manage to partake without falling overboard? Or to install railings high enough to deter people who are determined to commit suicide? After all, “if someone wants to kill themselves, you can’t keep them from doing it,” says Klein.
In the end, it all boils down to the central question in public safety, at sea and on land: where is the fine line between taking reasonable precautions and protecting people from themselves?