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AskUs: Why it’s almost impossible to rescue someone who’s fallen overboard from a cruise ship

So one of our readers asked us this really specific question the other day, Why it’s almost impossible to rescue someone who’s fallen overboard from a cruise ship? Couldn’t another passenger immediately grab two lifebuoys and jump in after him? Then both would be alive and easy to find the next morning. What am I not considering? Sorry for this really specific question, but it got me thinking after watching this gif of a man falling from a cruise ship.

ANSWER

The sea behaves in weird and counterintuitive ways. That’s what makes it so fatal.

Height

Firstly, there’s height. Hitting water at a certain speed is “like hitting concrete”, which is for example why jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge is fatal. Modern cruise ships are so large that you’re likely to sustain serious injuries hitting the water – it’s a long way from the passenger decks down to the waterline. Think broken pelvis, shattered legs, spinal damage, internal organ ruptures, etc.

Propellers

If you survive that, there’s the propellers: the danger that you’re now very, very close to a moving ship that takes a mile or two to stop, and the officers on the bridge almost certainly have no idea you’re there. Swimmers next to large ships have repeatedly been sucked down into the propulsion systems and, well, minced. Do you fancy your chances against something like this?

Treading

If you survive that, there’s exhaustion: from treading water, as little as 30-45 minutes for a non-athlete. Without constantly making effort to swim, you will naturally float face-down, on your back – not a great way to ensure a supply of air. Admittedly a life ring prevents this. It’s also very, very difficult to swim clothed – try it in a swimming pool sometime. Your clothes become waterlogged and heavy, making every movement sluggish and exhausting. The additional weight pulls you a little lower in the water and they do nothing to keep you from getting cold. Do these passengers know it’s a good idea to kick their shoes off? Probably not. Swimming with them on will be almost impossible.

If you survive that, there’s hypothermia: Even in warm parts of the world, the sea is so cold that you have hours at most before dying as a swimmer. Water is 32 times more efficient at chilling the body than air. If the water is really warm, for instance a cruise in the tropics – the hypothermia risk is replaced by shark risk (see injuries and the possibility that you’re already bleeding, above).

Sprayhoods

If you somehow avoid that, there’s drowning from water inhalation: in the open sea, even with floatation, it’s amazingly easy to get exhausted trying to stop small waves washing into your face while you are trying to breathe. Ocean lifejackets for sailors, oil-rig workers etc. have sprayhoods for this reason – to deflect incoming water away from your airways. In your scenario, neither passenger has this.

If you survive all of the above, it’s not easy to find someone floating in open water. Not at all. Consider that only their head (maybe an arm?) would be above the waves – and in waves more than, say, eight inches high, they will be bobbing in and out of sight. When teaching yacht sailing, a common demo is for the instructor to toss a fender overboard and say “let’s practice recovering that crew member!” It’s terrifyingly difficult. If you take your eye off the person even to blink, you lose them completely among the clutter of the waves with no visual reference whatsoever. One person is given the sole job of pointing directly at them at all times without moving their gaze, just to try and prevent losing sight of them – that’s their only responsibility until the boat is back alongside the casualty. And this is on a yacht close to the water surface where you can just pull them back in – will you be able to see that tiny head from the height of the ship’s bridge?

Even if you can mark the man-overboard coordinates with GPS, they will then drift downwind/downtide/some unknown combination of the two with every passing hour in ways supercomputers still struggle to model, meaning the search zone gets larger and larger all the time. This is how lifeboats and helicopters end up working ‘search patterns’ dozens of miles across – looking for that head among millions of shifting waves, like trying to spot a screw your friend dropped “somewhere in a grassy field”. Except in this analogy, the grass is shifting and changing constantly, and the screw is drifting at an unknown speed in an uncertain direction. And freezing to death, along with other deadly factors listed above.

Consider that the US Coast Guard has some of the finest helicopters and military-grade cameras, thermal imaging sensors etc, in the world. They still take hours searching for lost persons, and often come back empty-handed. They aren’t incompetent – falling overboard is one of the clearest and most severe dangers present at sea. It really is serious business, and one of my greatest fears.

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  • I’m a sailor and It is very true that once you’re overboard, no matter whether its a cruise or merchant ship, you’re pretty much done. Any running vessel, big enough will suck you into its propeller’s blades to getting minced. I like how you said it, getting minced. The height of the fall will leave you crippled, you will be in panic, very few seconds to act before propellers chop you up. Even if you’re lucky and the water current pushed you away, very unlikely, without the proper gear, nobody can survive long enough to be rescued. All the safety precautions kept on any ship are for certain scenarios. There are some scenarios, which make these safety measures look pointless.
    I actually have been part of a rescue. One night, near the Strait of Hormuz, en route from Bandar Abbas, Iran to Sharjah, UAE, me and my captain had just finished dinner and were on a walk to the forward mast before our night watch. We both heard a loud scream, it was more like a shout out. We both at first thought, it might be one of those oil selling boats. But the shout came again and we realised that somebody is drowning. It was around 7:30, all dark outside. I immediately rushed to the bridge and turned the ship around. All of our crew was out on forward and aft with their searchlights on, trying to find the needle in the hay. I was the one steering, I totally had to rely on instincts. We stopped the engines twice to make it real quiet to us to hear the drowning person’s screams. Anyone who has enough knowledge of the waters, knows how quiet the sea can be, once you shut down your machinery. Finally after like 20 minutes of all kinds of Bulls**t, our chief officer located him on his searchlight. I had to do the steering to be as close to him as we possibly can. I had to steer almost 100 m long ship, and I killed the engines about 40 m from him. Any more closer and he could have been sucked into our propeller. We then literally shouted at him to try to get as close as he can get to the ship. Fortunately, We had loaded 90% of our capacity and the freeboard was just 1.7~8 m, which is almost 6 feet. He was visually good at swimming, he swam to about 20 m from us and we already had our lifebuoy in water. He got to it and held on to it and got in the second lifebuoy we threw at him. We had our ladder down, we pulled him close and he took the steps up the ladder. I was the guy who gave him a hand and pulled him to our deck. He literally collapsed into my arms after taking the first step on the ship. We took him in, kept him warm, gave him a little whisky. He was travelling in a small boat and his boat collapsed. They were initially 4 in total but he saw no signs of others. He said he was swimming for more than an hour and had almost given up the hopes until he saw the lights of our ship. He was a smuggler who travel at nights from Oman to Iran. We gave him to Iranian coast guard. They thanked us for the rescue. None of the other 3 were found. It was the most adrenaline pumping 2 hours of my life. Can’t forget his words, “Kishti, ummeed” means, “Ship, hope”
    The chances of him being rescued were almost none. Had the captain and me avoided the walk on the deck, nobody would’ve heard his shouts. No doubt it is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world but nobody can hear anything once your in the sound proof Bridge.

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