While falling overboard isn’t nearly as prevalent as it used to be, the recovery rate for victims is terrifyingly low. Many of the situations that lead to this point are completely avoidable with proper precautions. When traveling by ship – whether it be a modest canoe or a luxury cruise line – knowing the most probable causes of falling overboard could very well save a life.
Falling overboard is very dangerous, but avoidable. Always travel with a buddy or crewmate in line of sight, as this type of emergency requires an immediate response. Most of the things that cause people to fall overboard stem from inattentiveness, standing on a moving boat, substance use, sudden weather complications, or poor ship design.
Falling overboard is more than just an impromptu swimming session. Your health and well-being are at severe risk for multiple reasons. Just how badly they are is covered in the content below, along with ways to mitigate their most common causes.
Dangers of Falling Overboard
While it might not seem very dangerous at first – especially for practiced swimmers – falling overboard has a very high mortality rate. Every month, about two people fall overboard. The recovery rate for victims is between 17% and 25%. You really don’t want to test those odds.
Different factors will come together to endanger even competent swimmers. To begin, it isn’t guaranteed your impact in water will be soft. Most bigger boats are elevated enough above the water level to ensure harsh landings that will disorient you at a minimum. There isn’t even a guarantee you’ll remain conscious on landing.
Couple that with cold, hypothermia-inducing water, relentless waves, mounting exhaustion, local marine life, and limited visibility to fully understand just how bad a situation that is to endure.
The worst part is that people might not even be noticed falling. This can occur during heavy rains or other inclement weather. Getting help will be difficult if you have the misfortune of falling without any witnesses in earshot. Fortunately, most of the leading causes can be controlled.
Cause #1: Inattentiveness
Waves can easily catch you off guard, forcing your ride to sway and rock unevenly. Smaller boats experience this more extensively due to their limited surface area.
For the most part, this mainly happens while people are standing. You’re unlikely to be knocked off your boat if you remain seated. That’s even less of a concern for bigger ships, and people on cruise liners can afford to stand even in rough waters – just not on the boat’s deck.
Stick to the boat’s center rather than along the edges. If you feel yourself going off-balance, try to crouch. A lower center of gravity is easier to balance and usually works well for most elements rocking your boat. You probably won’t fall into the water if you’re quick enough, though it could leave a nasty bruise.
Standing is simply a needless risk the majority of the time. If that can’t be helped – like if you’re fishing – take measures to minimize the dangers of falling overboard altogether. Equip a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) if you plan to stand a lot in a boat. These will greatly reduce the personal exertion needed to keep yourself afloat, buying some time for a rescue attempt.
Case #2: Intoxication
Even though cruise ship man overboard (MOB) occurrences have dropped with safety regulations, it’s notable that as much as 40% of the remaining incidents involve alcohol or other substances. This likely remains a relevant factor for smaller ships, though not reported often.
The reasoning behind this boils down to impaired balance and judgment. People under the influence are more likely to put themselves in risky positions, such as the perimeter of a boat or fully leaned against railings. They’ll exercise less caution, and might not register danger in time.
Most passengers already experience some level of dizziness due to the ship’s passive motion. Being under the influence of substances will compound that feeling. Some people seek out fresh air when drunk, and this may lead them to the ship’s deck at odd hours.
While it’s not a problem to indulge in a few sips of booze, sake, or other alcoholic drinks above deck – or even a bit more than that down in their quarters – it’s important to understand why alcohol is such a problematic substance while seafaring or cruising.
Alcohol raises your vulnerability to the most crucial dangers of falling overboard: drowning and hypothermia. Fine motor functions are inhibited, leading to difficulty staying above water level, which is especially problematic during rough waves. It also lowers your core body temperature. It simply makes the drinker feel warm and placid, which is undesirable in these scenarios.
In summary, alcohol hampers your judgment, fine motor control, and core body temperature. It’s not a problem in moderation and among good company. Outside of that, it’s easily one of the most dangerous risk factors contributing to both the prevalence and mortality rate of MOB incidents.
Cause #3: Weather
Out in the waters, weather can lead to conditions degenerating at a very rapid pace. Crew members need to warn everyone on deck of impending weather difficulties, as these can hamper overall safety during travel. Weather can compromise safety in different ways that need to be taken into account to ensure everyone’s wellbeing.
Visibility is one of the first aspects obscured by weather. This usually takes the form of heavy rain or thick fog, and renders even lateral viewing a challenge – your own ship might not even be entirely clear even when observed standing on one end! It’s very easy to lose track of people below.
Trying to make out someone flailing from the water a good ten feet away will be extraordinarily difficult, and that’s assuming the problem was just fog. Rainwater will get into the observer’s eyes and make the person overboard even more difficult to locate.
Communication becomes very difficult during inclement weather. In most cases, the crew of your ship will inform everyone on deck of what’s to come. That kind of pre-emptive preparations aren’t always at play – sometimes, the weather can change too rapidly for them to coordinate a response in time.
Falling overboard during these conditions makes for grave danger, especially during heavy rains. Not only will the rainfall muffle the sound of someone calling for help, but most people would have left for shelter at that point.
Even the crew are unlikely to loiter on a boat deck during torrential rain. It also has the added effect of making it more difficult to breathe while overboard, with water droplets landing on one’s nose and mouth while trying to stay afloat.
Larger ships can take a long while to stop – some cruise liners can go as far as one whole mile before coming to rest. Every second counts, so make sure the situation gets to the people capable of mounting a proper response.
Cause #4: Unsafe Ship Design
The architecture of the ship itself may be flawed, either being done below regulation standard or not designed with common dangers in mind.
A poorly-maintained floor could lead to someone slipping off the ship in heavy rains. Even safety rails at the proper height won’t make a difference if you fall clear past it from a higher elevation. Below are a few structures that warrant special attention.
Narrow Walkways and Exposed Stairs
Narrow walkways are dangerous due to most cruise ship vertical structures being open. Losing your balance on a passing can send you careening a whole floor below.
The same applies to stairs, and when falling down it’s very possible for one to clear the main railings. While usually made of sturdy materials due to the increased risk, these structures aren’t usually built high enough to prevent people from going over the side. If it’s set near the edges of the ship, you could fall hard onto lower levels or go overboard entirely.
This risk only gets further exacerbated by rain increasing their slipperiness, and could easily lead to emergency incidents amidst less than ideal conditions.
Ineffective Safety Rails
Unfortunately, a lot of safety rails are used by passengers as a platform for them to lean on and soak in the scenery. This isn’t necessarily a bad practice but usually serves as a common leadup for people falling overboard.
Some safety rails are just set too low. This is especially a problem for taller tourists. It’s not uncommon for people to lean on these railings, only to fall over the side abruptly due to turbulence. The railings can also have thin gaps in between, which children could easily slip past.
While already an annoyance as is, tripping hazards coupled with the prior design flaws will easily lead to MOB situations. Be mindful of low obstructions like cleaning carts, potted plants, and even leftover garbage when traversing the ship.
These aren’t static structural flaws like the prior examples, and can crop up at any point during your stay. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings constantly due to this specific concern.
Small Vs Large Boats
Falling overboard in small boats is usually caused by people being caught off-balance. This is often due to them being distracted while standing up, followed by an unexpected shift from a powerful wave. This tends to happen while people are fishing or showing off.
While the limited platform space makes balance more difficult to manage, it’s much easier for the person overboard to recover. The boat will be accessible from the water, and it’s unlikely they’ll drift too far off.
When boating on a small ship, stick with a buddy for your trip. Your friend will be your main insurance policy to prevent these mishaps. One of you can take care of the boat and trip while the other recovers from potential hypothermia.
As tempting as it might be, don’t booze up on your trip. You don’t want you or your friend being even harder to take care of, as alcohol messes with both muscle control and core body temperature.
Large boats are deceptively risky despite the greater presence of people. Cruise ships and private yachts suffer from potential supervision and inebriation concerns.
If you fall off ships this size, it will be very difficult to return even with help. Cruise ship decks are often set at the highest point of open space on the ship. Falling will cause you to plummet at a distance of at least 10-20 feet, and you might land on your head or upper body in some cases.
It’s usually safe to enjoy yourself here, but avoid doing so in difficult weather. Always listen to the crew’s warnings as the weather can and will change drastically at times. Do not go to the main deck without paying attention to your surroundings.
Minimize your time around the perimeter boundaries of the ship, and always be in eyeshot to a friend or crewmate. Avoid such areas entirely if you’re drunk or otherwise not in full control of your faculties.
What To Do with A Man Overboard?
If It’s You
Call for attention immediately. You won’t know what dangers the area might have – other than hypothermia and drowning, it could have hostile aquatic life drifting about. It’s much easier for a person outside the water to help than it would for you to drag yourself back up, assuming that’s even possible in your circumstances.
Avoid panicking. It might not be easy during these conditions, but flailing around will exhaust you and attract aquatic life in your area. Focus on keeping yourself afloat, and minimize your motion. Most humans can float for hours, conserving their energy until rescue.
When someone is exposed to low temperature suddenly, they will likely experience something known as cold shock response. This will lead to a deep, involuntary gasp that’s usually followed by hyperventilation.
There’s no guarantee you can control how your body responds, so focus on keeping your head above water until the gasping dies down. Wait until a friend or crew member can successfully extract you from the water, and the worst of it should be behind you.
If It’s Someone Else
Immediately call for assistance! The person who fell might not entirely have their bearings due to the impact, so maintain unimpeded awareness of their location until help arrives.
If they can’t swim, their location will vary on where the waves take them. It’s very easy to lose track of people in the water – especially when viewing from a great distance, or if they’re wearing subdued clothing. Ensure you have a constant visual on the person overboard.
Make sure to call out to the person overboard – cold water and disorientation put them at risk of lethargy and potential unconsciousness. If you can provide them with flotation devices, do so immediately. Life rings and life vests should keep them from exerting too much effort to stay alive. Long sticks or anything they can grab onto will be very helpful for similar reasons.
You’ll probably be doing this during smaller trips with a handful of people, so prepare for that possibility accordingly. It would be wise to do the same even on larger cruises, though the ship’s crew usually do well enough in these circumstances.
There are many potential reasons for people to fall overboard, but many of these are within our control. Be mindful of your surroundings, and avoid needless risks – especially when under the influence. The most important thing to do in these emergencies is to bring other people in to help.