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Man Overboard on a Cruise Ship: What to Expect

Aft Pool on Seabourn Ovation
Aft Pool on Seabourn Ovation
Executive Editor, U.S.
Chris Gray Faust
Lori A. May

Last updated
Feb 5, 2024

Read time
7 min read

It can be a harrowing experience to hear the phrase "man overboard" whilst cruising. That phrase will send crew members into action mode and can instill fear or worry into passengers jolted from their vacation mindset.

Even if you've never witnessed this emergency call firsthand, perhaps you've seen news headlines like "Carnival Cruise ship man overboard" or "man falls off cruise ship" and wondered how that's even possible with such an emphasis on cruise ship safety.

Let's break down what happens during a man overboard scenario and how you'll hopefully see a follow-up headline of "Carnival Cruise passenger rescued."

What Does "Man Overboard" Mean if Heard While Cruising?

"Man overboard" is the international maritime term for when a person of any gender has fallen off the ship and needs 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 Easy Is It for Cruise Passengers to Fall Off Cruise Ships?

Most people do not "fall" off ships, as railings are purposefully built high enough to prevent accidents. The ship's security cameras frequently indicate evidence that going overboard situations are intentional or result from a passenger's actions. For example, 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 unfortunately does happen. Usually it takes place at night, and passengers either jump from their cabin balcony or from a high deck on the ship.

How Often Does Going Overboard Happen on Cruise Ships?

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. You may have seen a headline like "Carnival cruise woman falls overboard" many times over, but it's usually the same online story circulating in a sensational manner.

Do People Always Die When Going Overboard from a Ship?

No, but 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 crew or Coast Guard.

Wind and weather factors also play a role in a rescue mission. If the seas are rough, it not only makes it difficult for a person to swim, it's also 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. Among the International Flags and Pennants used for maritime signaling, the flag for "O" or "Oscar" indicates man overboard when flown alone. Some vessels have a specific man overboard flagpole where this code flag is flown.

You might hear "Oscar Oscar Oscar" or "Code Oscar" announced to alert the crew. The code "Mr. Mob" may also be used, MOB being the abbreviation and accepted maritime acronym for man overboard.

The cruise ship will then 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.

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.

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.

What Should I Do if I See Someone Going Overboard?

Shout out and find a crew member -- any crew member -- as soon as possible. Take note of the place where the man overboard 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 as well.

What Does the Ship Do to Try to Rescue the Passenger?

MSC World Europa alongside at Sir Bani Yas Island, UAE, on March 6, 2023 (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
MSC World Europa alongside at Sir Bani Yas Island, UAE, on March 6, 2023 (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

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.

Perhaps you've seen news stories of "Carnival Cruise ship man overboard." When a passenger fell from Carnival Dream in October 2019, the ship was 47 miles from Galveston. The ship was aided in the search by several cargo ships and the Coast Guard, which released Dream from the search overnight at which point it continued to its port stop in Cozumel.

Not all man overboard situations happen at sea. In January 2020, a passenger on Oasis of the Seas went overboard while it was docked in San Juan. Local authorities and the Coast Guard created a 300-yard safety zone around the area while a search and rescue operation took place.

Will My Cruise Be Delayed if a Passenger Goes Overboard?

A search and rescue operation does take some time, so it's likely that you might lose some hours 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 disembarkation.

Will the Ship Cancel Activities if a Passenger Goes Overboard?

Generally, no. While a passenger going 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.

Family members or travel companions onboard generally disembark at the next available port, where the cruise line may assist with arrangements to return home. The cruise line will also attempt to notify the emergency contact provided by all passengers in their check-in documents.

Does a Criminal Investigation Take Place When Someone Goes Overboard?

While the Coast Guard is in charge of search and rescue operations, cases of missing U.S. citizens must be reported to the FBI, which has jurisdiction over many incidents that happen on the high seas (areas located outside state and local waters). Cases that happen in port are reported to local authorities who will investigate as they see fit.

In cases where there are witnesses and/or video evidence that don't suggest obvious foul play, the FBI may only choose to investigate if there are reported suspicious circumstances leading up to the man overboard incident or if a family member insists.

In all cases, cruise lines have at least one crew member trained in evidence collection and investigation techniques who will be in charge of the case until the FBI or local authorities can take over.

Witnesses and family members onboard will likely be questioned regarding the activities and whereabouts of the victim leading up to the incident or to provide any information relevant to the investigation.

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.

I've Heard of Carnival Cruise Man Overboard Emergencies. Should I Cancel My Cruise?

Man overboard rescues can happen on any cruise ship on any cruise line anywhere in the world. As noted above, going overboard is often the result of guest behavior while onboard. Guests who follow general safety procedures needn't worry so much about accidentally falling overboard.

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