How to Survive a Fall from a Cruise Ship in the Open Sea: Survival Expert

  • A woman has been rescued after falling overboard a Royal Caribbean cruise ship on Sunday.
  • An expert explained to Insiders the main concerns for someone floating in the sea and how to deal with them.
  • Not panicking, looking for floating objects and giving a signal can help you survive.

If you fall off a cruise ship in the middle of the night and no one knows, according to one survival expert, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of surviving and being found.

On Sunday, a woman survived after falling overboard a Royal Caribbean cruise ship more than 30 miles off the coast of the Dominican Republic. Members of the cruise crew put a lifeboat into the water and were able to save the woman about 45 minutes after the overflow.

In another incident in November, James survived Michael Grimes after falling overboard the Carnival Valor cruise ship the night before Thanksgiving Day. The 28-year-old told ABC’s Good Morning America he didn’t remember falling, he just woke up somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico with no boat in sight.

Grimes described the next 20 hours as a fight for his life, which he spent treading water and fending off jellyfish and at least one unidentified finned creature. He survived the night and the next day until night fell again, attempting to eat objects floating by, including a piece of bamboo.

Eventually he was spotted by the crew aboard the bulk carrier Crinis and eventually rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter.

Seth Gross, the U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant who oversees search and rescue operations in the greater Louisiana Gulf Coast area, told Insider that “a whole host of factors” had to come together “perfectly” for Grimes to survive the ordeal: “To survive, fall , to be able to stay afloat that no shark found him, and then this motor ship happened to be in the right position.

But while luck, tenacity, and Coast Guard preparedness were key factors, according to Cat Bigney, a survival expert, there are some practical things a person falling into the open sea can do to increase their chances of surviving that of Bear Grylls and National Geographic acted in an advisory capacity.

No panic

There are many things that work against a person who overdoes it. First, they must avoid injury during the fall and when hitting the water. Calling for help or actually finding help in the open sea is nearly impossible. There could be blazing sun, possibly hungry predators, and rough water. Hypothermia and dehydration are also major risks.

“All of these factors make it very difficult for people to survive when they’re drifting,” Bigney, who has taught at Boulder Outdoor Survival School for decades, told Insider.

Falling overboard on a cruise ship is extremely rare, but the vast majority of those who do are never rescued. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, between 2009 and 2019 there were 212 incidents of overboard displacement on cruise ships. Only 48 of these people were saved.

But what is the first thing a person needs to remember in an overboard situation? No panic.

“Typically, when people enter a body of water, they immediately damage their lungs because they’re gasping for air,” Bigney explained. “We have such a panic instinct to gasp, and when people do that, they bring water to their lungs.”

Keeping your cool in life-and-death situations is crucial, Bigney says, because panic is “the biggest thing that can kill you in a survival situation.”

Carnival Valor ship in Grand Cayman

Carnival Valor, pictured here in 2010.

(AP Photo/J Pat Carte

Find anything that floats

Once you’re in open water, your next priority is to stay above the surface. Depending on body composition, including body fat percentage and muscle mass, some people may have a natural advantage and be able to levitate more easily.

Although Grimes was in the water for about 20 hours, Bigney says it’s unlikely he stepped on water the entire time. A combination of floating, kicking and swimming would be ideal but would still be tiring, especially in rough water. But stepping in place at regular intervals is still much more practical than constantly.

There are also ways to make hovering easier. Grimes, for example, said he stripped off all his clothes to be fitter.

“Even a small flotation device will help — something you can wear with your arms around your neck or around your neck to relieve some of the stress if you’re not a good swimmer or are struggling to stay afloat,” Bigney said .

Grimes had said he tried chewing on some bamboo, which Bigney says is extremely buoyant. Even collecting small pieces of bamboo or driftwood can help a person stay afloat, she said. At best, you could collect enough that you could build a pile or raft that you could lift to the surface of the water and out of the water, which would also make you safer from potential predators.

Water would be a problem, food less

It is unlikely that Grimes was able to gain any significant energy from chewing bamboo, but during the time he spent at sea eating was not his primary concern.

“Our bodies are evolutionarily perfectly adapted to the ability to fast for a long period of time, so it should have been okay as far as eating,” Bigney said, adding that it might have helped him “psychologically,” but “physiological”. “His body was probably fine without eating.

Calories are needed to regulate body temperature, but she said most bodies could do this for a few days with reserves including fat and liver. Grimes was treated for hypothermia after his rescue, as the 70-degree water temperature was significantly colder than the base human body temperature, but he was stranded most of the time from exercise and swimming — as well as other factors such as what food he had recently eaten and his body fat levels may have helped him avoid the worst.

According to Bigney, dehydration would be a much bigger immediate problem than food.

“You don’t want to drink salt water,” she said, adding that you should try to conserve the water you already have. One way to achieve this is to try to use your clothing as protection from the sun, for example by wrapping it over your head.

Garbage floats on the sea surface

Garbage floating on the sea surface can be used as a signal.

Ulrike Schmitt-Hartmann/Getty Images

Make a mark wherever you can – even with rubbish

Ultimately, when you fall off a cruise ship many miles from shore, being rescued is a game of patience, and signaling is one way to increase your chances of being found.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of debris in our big oceans,” Bigney said, adding that collecting floating debris in a big pile could potentially provide a signal that could be spotted by rescuers.

When an overboard situation is reported, the US Coast Guard uses a program to estimate where a floating object may be, Gross told Insider. The Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System takes into account the person’s weight, clothing, body fat percentage and whether or not they have flotation devices, as well as weather and sea conditions.

For Grimes, the system has brought back over 7,000 square nautical miles of ocean where it could be, which is roughly the size of Massachusetts – so anything you can do to increase the chances of being spotted can help.

“Ultimately, it’s a pretty grim situation, but people survived,” Bigney said, adding, “And sometimes people just die.”

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in December 2022 and updated in June 2023.

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