What to Expect on a Cruise: Man Overboard on a Cruise Ship

Cruise railing

What does 'man overboard' mean?

"Man overboard" is the maritime term for when a person of either gender has fallen off the ship and is in need of rescue. When a man overboard situation happens, cruise ship captains and staff go into emergency mode to try to save the passenger or crew member who is in danger.

How do cruise passengers fall off ships?

Most people do not "fall" off ships, as railings are purposefully built high enough to prevent accidents. They jump. (If they do fall, it's because they've climbed onto a railing or somewhere else they shouldn't be.) While suicide at sea isn't a common occurrence, it does happen. Usually it takes place at night, after a domestic disturbance or excessive alcohol consumption. Passengers either jump from their cabin balcony or from a high deck on the ship.

How often does it happen?

Because a man overboard situation can happen on any vessel in any part of the world, there are no specific statistics compiled by the U.S. government. In general, there are about 20 incidents a year.

Do people always die when they go overboard?

No. Survival rates depend on several factors, including whether the person was injured by impact with the water or part of the ship on the way down and how quickly the person can be rescued by the cruise ship or Coast Guard. Many times, a person going overboard is dead by the time he or she reaches the water. Wind and weather factors play a role; if the seas are rough, it not only makes it difficult for a person to swim, it's tough for emergency staff to find them in the water. Other factors include the temperature of the sea; hypothermia can begin to set in when the water is less than 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

If I'm on a cruise ship, will I know if a fellow passenger has fallen overboard?

Probably. For one thing, the ship will issue an emergency broadcast to muster its crew. Oscar is the Morse code term for man overboard, so you might hear "Oscar oscar oscar."

Second, the cruise ship will turn around as soon as possible to reach the area where the person landed in the water. When a passenger fell off Oasis of the Seas in November 2015, the ship came to a stop in six minutes, traveling almost a mile from the site before it could turn around. As a passenger, you might feel the ship's movements as it performs these maneuvers.

Third, if you are out on deck or have a balcony cabin on the side of the ship where the emergency responders are searching, you will likely see lights sweeping the area.

Finally, the captain will typically make an announcement the next day to inform passengers of any itinerary changes or delays. In some situations, a larger meeting will be held to give people information and tamp down rumors.  

What should I do if I see someone go overboard?

Shout out, and find a crew member -- any crew member -- as soon as possible. Take note of the place where the jump happened, as well as the time and any details you noticed, as you will likely be asked to give a report to Guest Services. Stay out of the way of any emergency personnel who are trying to do their jobs. 

What does the ship do to try to rescue the passenger?

As soon as an incident happens, cruise ship crew will activate a button that pinpoints the place where the person went into the water. The ship will then stop and turn back to that area. The ship and its crew will perform a lengthy search and rescue operation, lasting several hours. The captain will notify other ships in the area, which are obligated to help, as well as the closest local maritime authority.

In the Oasis of the Seas situation, the incident took place near Turks & Caicos on an Eastern Caribbean itinerary. The captain notified the U.S. Coast Guard in Florida, who sent a plane and helicopter to aid in the search. The teams worked together for six hours until Coast Guard vessels arrived at the scene. At that point, the Coast Guard cleared Oasis of the Seas to return to its route.

Will my ship be delayed if a passenger goes overboard?

Search and rescue does take some time, so it's likely that you might lose some time in port or need to make a detour. The ship will do everything in its power to make sure other passengers make their flights home, if the delay will alter debarkation.

Will the ship cancel activities if a passenger goes overboard?

Generally, no. While a passenger overboard situation does affect the tenor of the cruise -- people will be talking about it around the ship and at dinner -- the staff will do everything in its power to get the atmosphere back to normal.

What happens to the family or friends of a person who went overboard?

The cruise lines have care teams who are trained to give emotional support to those who have lost a friend or family member. If an overboard situation took place in a public manner, counseling is available to others on the ship who might need it.

While the Coast Guard is the first emergency line of defense, the FBI has jurisdiction over any incident that happens on the high seas (areas located outside state and local waters). They take responsibility for investigating man overboard incidents.  

I'm upset because a person went overboard on my cruise. Will I get a refund?

Probably not, unless the itinerary was radically disturbed. As noted, counseling is available, and activities on the ship do resume.

How can I learn more about what happens when a person goes overboard?

Are Cruise Ships Safe?

9 Tips for Staying Safe on a Cruise Ship

What to Expect on a Cruise: Cruise Ship Safety

When a Passenger Dies at Sea

The What to Expect on a Cruise series, written by Cruise Critic's editorial staff, is a resource guide, where we answer the most common questions about cruise ship life -- including cruise food, cabins, drinks and onboard fun -- as well as money matters before and during your cruise and visiting ports of call on your cruise.

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