Editor’s note: This article contains references to suicide and might be distressing to some readers. Help is available 24/7 by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
We’ve all heard sad news reports of people going overboard on cruises. If you’re someone who hasn’t cruised before or who isn’t familiar with ships, it sounds scary. But is it true? Can you really fall off a cruise ship? What do the authorities do in a cruise ship overboard situation?
Here’s everything you need to know about what happens in a “man overboard” situation on a cruise ship and how to make sure it doesn’t happen to you.
For more cruise guides, news and tips, sign up for TPG’s cruise newsletter.
Is falling off a cruise ship easy?
No. Cruise ships have railings — usually about chest height on the average person — on all open deck areas and cabin balconies. They are placed intentionally to ensure passenger safety.
The only way you risk a fall is if you’re standing on furniture to peer over the side or climbing somewhere you’re not supposed to. It’s not possible for you to trip over a door frame or slip on a wet deck and fall off of a vessel.
Play by the rules and remain in control of your actions, and you don’t have to worry about inadvertently falling overboard from a cruise ship.
How does someone go overboard from a cruise ship?
Accidental overboards can happen when cruisers have had too much to drink and climb on top of railings, enter restricted areas or attempt dangerous — and potentially fatal — stunts like climbing from balcony to balcony. One sad story involved a grandfather holding his baby granddaughter up to an open window to see the view and then losing his grip and dropping her.
It’s impossible to discuss cruise-ship man-overboard incidents without mentioning that some of them are, in fact, intentional. Some cruisers purposefully jump off cruise ships to commit suicide. Passengers caught up in a physical fight or wishing to do harm could push someone off the ship, though it would take some effort.
Are man overboard situations common on cruise ships?
In many cases, stories of passengers “falling off” of cruise ships make it seem like it’s a regular occurrence or that there’s a grave risk you could be swept over the side while going about your daily vacation activities. In reality, one or two people go overboard each month out of roughly 2.5 million who cruise during the same time frame.
Between 2009 and 2019, there have been 212 man overboard incidents on cruise ships, according to a Report on Operational Incidents issued by the Cruise Lines International Association. That works out to roughly 19 overboards each year.
Cases of people falling off ships are also on the decline. “From 2009 to 2019, man overboard incidents have declined with an incidence of 0.00004 overboard reports per active lower berth (synonymous with a cabin’s bed) in 2019,” reports CLIA. “This is 64% of the figure recorded in 2009.”
What happens when someone falls off a cruise ship?
When someone is determined to have gone over the side, the bridge — the ship’s control center — will contact the coast guard, and a search will begin.
Officers will attempt to pinpoint when and where the incident happened, allowing the search to cover a particular radius where the individual is predicted to be. The search will be called off after either the passenger is found or the ship is cleared by the coast guard to continue its voyage.
If your ship is involved in a search for a missing passenger, it might have to skip a port call or delay its return home to account for the time spent retracing its route to look for the person overboard.
What should you do if you see a cruise ship overboard?
If you witness someone falling off a cruise ship, throw them a life buoy or other flotation device if you’re near one. You can often find orange life rings attached to deck railings.
It’s crucial to then alert a crew member that you witnessed a man overboard and have the crew alert the bridge. Note the time the overboard occurred. With this information, the bridge officers can identify the exact position of the ship at that time, so it can return to that location to search for the missing guest.
Can you survive going overboard from a cruise ship?
Unfortunately, it’s rare that a passenger is found alive. A Carnival cruiser who fell off a ship over Thanksgiving 2022 made headlines when he was rescued after spending close to 20 hours in the Gulf of Mexico. He was lucky because his positive outcome is not common.
Overboards are particularly grim when the ship is moving, as the vessel’s speed and current mean that a person can be swept away quickly. If they aren’t immediately seen, it can be a while before the captain realizes what has happened.
Chances of survival vary, depending on the circumstances of the fall. A passenger could get injured, hitting part of the ship as they fall. Should they survive the fall, water temperature also plays a significant role in how long a person can survive. You have a better chance of waiting out a rescue in the warm Caribbean sea than in chilly Alaskan waters.
Of the 212 overboard incidents mentioned earlier, 48 of those (roughly 28%) were rescued alive, CLIA reports. That amounts to four or five rescues each year.
Any time an overboard occurs, cruise lines offer assistance to friends, family or other travel companions traveling with the passenger in question.
If you stick to the areas where you’re allowed to be as a passenger, you don’t have to worry about falling overboard on a cruise.
Always pay attention to safety messages and signage that indicates which parts of the ship are meant for crew only.
Have more cruise questions? TPG has answers:
More banned items: What not to pack for a cruise
What is baked Alaska, and why is it paraded around cruise ships?
What are the largest cruise ships in the world?
What is a gentleman host on a cruise?
What is the Jones Act and how does it affect cruise ships?
What is a lido deck on a cruise ship?
What’s a cruise cabin guarantee and will it save you money?
What’s the difference between a cruise concierge and a butler?
Additional reporting by Erica Silverstein.