How to Survive If You Go Overboard From a Cruise Ship

Jul 4, 2018

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On Sunday, a Norwegian crew member fell overboard from the cruise line’s Getaway ship, which was sailing from Cuba back to Miami.

The man survived a “miraculous” 22 hours in the open ocean, before another cruise line happened to spot him and scoop him up to safety.

It might be the last thing you want to think about while luxuriating on the lido deck or gorging at the midnight buffet — but actually, approximately 150 people went overboard from ships between 2009 and 2016. And an average of 19 people go overboard from cruise ships every year, according to a report compiled last year for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

That figure is obviously minute when you consider that CLIA estimated some 25.8 million passengers took cruises in 2017. Furthermore, experts speculate that a good deal of those overboard incidents aren’t accidents (rather someone jumped or was pushed, for example).

But if you do go overboard by accident, the first thing to remember is to stay calm. Admittedly though, that advice becomes more difficult to follow the colder the water gets.

Try not to panic

“When you first go into cold water, you get what we call a cold shock response,” Mike Tipton, professor at Portsmouth University and author of “Essentials of Sea Survival” said in the UK’s Respect the Water campaign. A cold shock response leads to uncontrollable breathing and intensified work for your heart.

Your natural reaction will be to thrash around and swim hard in the water, but that instinct could kill you, Tipton explained. “It increases [the chance] of water entering your lungs, increases the strain on your heart, cools the skin further and helps air escape from any clothing, which then reduces buoyancy,” he said.

Instead, your best option is to try to stay calm and float as still as you can. “Although it’s counterintuitive, the best immediate course of action in that situation is to fight your instinct and try to float or rest, just for a short time,” Tipton explained. “The effects of cold water shock will pass quite quickly, within 60 to 90 seconds. Floating for this short time will let you regain control of your breathing and your survival chances will greatly increase.”

Stay as still as you can

The key factor is to conduct as little movement as possible until you have control of your breathing. Tipton recommended gently kicking your feet and sculling your arms. “At this point, you have a much better chance of avoiding drowning and surviving until you can swim to safety, call for help or continuing to float until help arrives,” he said.

If you have to move from the float position, try to only use your legs and keep your arms as close to your body as possible to conserve heat.

Temperature is key

It’s very likely that Cuba’s warm water temperature (about 80 to 85 degrees in the summer) was a major factor in the crew member’s ability to stay alive for almost a full day. The likelihood of survival goes exponentially higher the warmer and calmer the water becomes. That means there is less risk from hypothermia and less risk to the airway from wave splash, Tipton said.

In cold water, heat conservation is the name of the game. Women in general will have an easier time with that compared to men, because they usually have at least 10% more body fat — and fat is a good insulator.

Scientific studies have shown that a human’s chances of survival in water at a temperature of 41 degrees Fahrenheit is about one or two hours. The timeframe for survival increases to between two and a half and four hours when the water reaches a temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and humans can survive up to seven hours in water that’s 59 degrees Fahrenheit.

In water temperatures hovering around 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, survival time becomes indefinite.

Other ways to beat the odds

If you want to brush up on your survival skills, Tipton suggested going to your local pool and practicing floating on your back. That way, if a crisis hits, you will immediately know what to do.

And don’t forget to think positively. A positive attitude can increase a person’s will to survive, Tipton wrote in his book.

In order to survive, “it is essential to understand that you must drive yourself to adopt a positive attitude, and not simply surrender to despair,” he said.

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