Cruise Ships do Stop if You Fall Overboard – Here’s What Happens


If you are considering a cruise you may be wondering what would happen if you fell off the ship. Luckily it is almost impossible to fall off a cruise ship but there are still people on occasion who manage to fall accidentally usually while doing something dangerous like standing on a railing or climbing from balcony to balcony.

I was on a cruise in 2009 where a man jumped from his balcony so I have experienced the steps mentioned in this article first hand.

Do Cruise Ships Stop if You Fall Overboard?

If a guest on a cruise ship falls overboard the cruise ship will stop and turn back to look for the passenger. It can take a cruise ship up to a mile to stop. The ship will spend several hours looking for the missing passenger and other ships may also join in the search.

The success rate for finding people who have fallen overboard alive stands at around 25% and a number of factors affect this including location, time of day and weather.

How Many People Fall Overboard on Cruise Ships?

On average around 25 people fall off cruise ships per year. In 2019, 26 people fell overboard, out of the 29 million guests that took a cruise that year. This makes your chance of falling overboard on a cruise around 1 in 1.4 million.

The table below shows man overboard incidents recorded per year compared to the total cruise passengers per year. – Source.

YearMan Overboard Cruise Ship IncidentsCruise Passengers Per Year
20192629,000,000
20182528,500,000
20171725,800,000
20161624,700,000
20152722,100,000
Cruise ship man overboard incidents compared to total cruise passenger numbers

How do people fall off cruise ships?

The majority of people who fall off cruise ships either do so intentionally or by committing a reckless act. Railings are built to chest height on every part of the ship and there have been no incidents of passengers falling off cruise ships due to the negligence of the cruise lines.

The most common ways that passengers fall off cruise ships are the following:

  • Intentionally committing suicide
  • Passengers under the influence of drink and/or drugs
  • Guests climbing from one balcony to another or on top of railings
  • Murder – Another guest pushing a person overboard

Accidents

There are a few examples where unexplained accidents have happened such as a lady who fell off the Pacific Dawn in 2018. She had reportedly gone onto her balcony to be sick due to the bad weather than the ship was experiencing when she fell overboard.

For more information on the above, annual death statisitcs and examples check out this post:

The table below shows the man overboard incidents from 2019.

In total 26 people went overboard from cruise ships in 2019. 6 people were found alive meaning the success rate was roughly 25% which is standard. 5 man overboard incidents were caused by guests intentionally jumping overboard and 4 incidents involved crew members.

DateShipIncidentPerson Survived?
December 31MSC OrchestraJumped
Overboard
Yes
December 29Norwegian JewelUnknownNo
November 13Norwegian SunJumped OverboardYes
November 1FinnmarkenUnknownNo
October 24Carnival DreamUnknownNo
October 12Costa MagicaUnknownNo
September 29DivinaUnknownYes
September 26Rhapsody Of
The Seas
Crew OverboardNo
September 5Vision Of
The Seas
Crew OverboardNo
August 14Symphony Of
The Seas
UnknownNo
August 22Genting DreamUnknownNo
August 12Sun PrincessUnknownNo
August 8Majestic PrincessJumped OverboardNo
July 7 Freedom of
The Seas
AccidentalNo
July 5MSC MeravigliaUnknownNo
July 4Carnival VictoryCrew OverboardNo
June 18MSC SeaviewOverboard in PortYes
June 8NCL EpicUnknownNo
May 20Carnival FascinationJumped OverboardYes
May 8 AmsterdamUnknownNo
March 30Carnival SpiritUnknownNo
March 18Mariner Of
The Seas
UnknownYes
January 24Majesty Of
The Seas
Crew OverboardNo
January 21Golden PrincessUnknownNo
January 16Symphony Of
The Seas
Jumped OverboardYes
January 11Harmony Of
The Seas
Climbing Between BalconiesNo

What happens when somebody falls overboard on a cruise?

Cruise lines have a set of procedures that they must follow in the case of a man overboard incident.

Do cruise ships have man overboard sensors?

The majority of cruise ships don’t have specific man overboard sensors but they are becoming more common. 30 cruise ships owned by Carnival and Disney have been fitted with V-MOB sensors used to automatically alert the bridge of a man overboard incident.

There are CCTV cameras on cruise ships but these are usually used as evidence after the event and are not being consistently monitored.

The below process happening relies on either a crew member or fellow passenger seeing the person going overboard and raising the alarm.

If a guest goes overboard without anybody seeing them it may be hours or days before the missing passenger is reported. By this stage, the cruise line won’t be able to identify where they were at the time of the incident.

1 – The Exact Location Will be Tracked

The first thing that would happen would be that the crew would track the exact location of the fall. It can take a cruise ship multiple miles to come to a stop or a position where it can turn around so being able to know where the passenger went overboard is incredibly important.

That said tides and other factors could mean that that the passenger is far from their original location when the ship returns.

If the guest is still nearby life floats and buoys may be thrown overboard.

2 – An Emergency Announcement Will be Made

The ship will usually use an emergency announcement to let the crew members know what has happened. All crew will be trained in what they should do what they hear such an announcement.

The crew on cruise ship regularly complete man overboard drills often using dummies to mimic a person’s body. The cruise line will usually tell the guests in advance when they are doing drills like this as seeing a pretend body fall down in front of your balcony can be alarming!

On a cruise ‘Oscar Oscar’ means man overboard. This code will be broadcast throughout the ship and the announcement is usually made by the captain.

The broadcast will be made throughout the entire ship including the cabins.

I was on board the Norwegian Sky when a man jumped off the ship, the Oscar Oscar announcement was made in our cabin. It was the middle of the night so woke us up, not that we minded of course!

On this particular cruise, the captain asked for guests to look overboard to see if they could see the missing person.

Guests will rarely be given a lot of information about the incident other than the fact that a person has gone overboard.

3 – Authorities Informed

As soon as possible the cruise line will contact the closest authorities and the coastguard who will usually try to help with the rescue.

The coastguard’s response does of course depend on where the ship is sailing and how close they are to land at the time of the incident.

3 – The Cruise Ship Will Stop and Turn Around

There are no official figures for how long it takes a cruise ship to stop and it can depend on a number of factors. Most estimations suggest at least a mile with many saying further.

Cruise ships usually travel at around 20-30 miles per hour so it can take some time for the ship to slow down and turn around but they will do so as soon as it’s safe.

4 – Other Ships Will Join in The Search

One of the things that I remember most about the incident on the Norwegian Sky was that we circled round and round with other cruise ships.

I don’t remember exactly which ships were there but I remember seeing my first Disney cruise ship up close. It was very surreal to see the other ships and know why we were all circling together.

It’s not just cruise ships that will join in the search, if there are any other ships such as ferries or cargo ships these will also join in the search. Small search boats may also help if close to port and planes or helicopters may even be sent to help with the rescue.

5 – The Itinerary May be Changed

If a person falls off of a cruise there is a very high likelihood that the cruise itinerary will be changed. Usually, the next port will be canceled either because the cruise ship is continuing the search or because the search has caused a delay.

We missed the port of Nassau, Bahamas on our cruise and sadly the man in question was never found.

Are guests entitled to compensation if a passenger falls overboard?

Guests whose cruise is disrupted by a man overboard incident aren’t usually entitled to any form of compensation. Cruise lines do have councilors on board to speak to guests about the incident if required.

It’s very common for a cruise itinerary to change and it happens for a number of reasons.

To find out more about why your itinerary might be changed, and to find out how travel insurance could give you a cash sum in the event of an itinerary change, check out this post:

To conclude:

It is incredibly rare for passengers on a cruise to fall overboard on a cruise. The majority who do fall overboard were acting recklessly and/or affected by drink and drugs.

If a guest does fall overboard the cruise ship will stop and turn around to search for the guest and other ships will also join in the rescue effort. Your chances of falling overboard on a cruise are roughly 1 in 1.4 million.

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Emma Le Teace

Hey! I'm Emma. A cruise blogger, YouTuber and founder of the 'Cruising Isn't Just For Old People' Facebook community and website. You can learn more here: About Me.

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