What is the likelihood that you survive falling overboard on a cruise ship?

overboard.jpgA number of my friends recently returned from cruises. During one, a woman jumped overboard from the balcony outside her stateroom following an argument with her husband and was never found. She was presumed dead of a suicide. Jumping or falling overboard on a cruise ship turns out to be surprisingly common. It happens at a rate of about a dozen each year. We began to wonder what these people might be thinking. Do they all intend to kill themselves, or do they think they will survive? What are the actual chances of survival? Would the fall kill you before you hit the water? Would the water impact necessarily kill you? And if not, what are the odds of being rescued before you drown or die of other causes?

Cruise ships vary greatly in size. The distance from the deck or balcony to the water is hard to pin down. But the height of the fall is the most important factor of surviving the fall itself, so we need some kind of educated guess. Based on information about a variety of cruise ships found on www.ship-technology.com, a good guesstimate seems to be from 100ft to about 200ft. You can adjust this accordingly for the ship you plan to fall from!

It seems to be well agreed upon that the short 2-to-4 second falls from these heights and the associated shock would seldom kill anyone before they hit the water. It’s also improbable that you would pass out during a fall of such a short duration. The key to surviving the fall, not surprisingly, is the ability to survive the impact with the water, and then of course getting rescued promptly.

Falls from heights into water are surprisingly treacherous. When the falling person reaches a certain impact speed the water cannot spread out fast enough to cushion the fall the way it does for a diver. A high speed impact into water is very similar to falling on concrete. For example, hundreds of people have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, on average one very two weeks. They fall from a height of about 220 ft. above the water and impact at a speed of 75 mph. Only 26 are known to have survived the fall/jump, about one out of every 50. But it seems like the Golden Gate bridge may be just a little too high to be survivable. Cruise ship falls are generally a little lower so you may have at least a small chance.

When a person falls from a great height, they accelerate until they reach terminal velocity. Then they continue falling at that speed until the ground stops them. Terminal velocity for a falling person is roughly 125 mph for a person with loose-fitting clothing and arms spread wide in an arched position. It’s much higher, up to 300 mph or more, if the faller is in a dive or cannonball position. However, it takes about 14 seconds of freefall to reach terminal velocity, so you are not likely to approach anything like 125 mph in a fall of under four seconds.

According to an FAA research report, your odds of surviving are about 25% if you hit the water at 68 mph, the speed you will typically reach from a fall of 180 ft. Falls from greater heights are dramatically less survivable (about 4%). So it might be reasonable to guess that at least half of those who fall from a cruise ship survive the impact with the water.

There are things you can do to improve your chances while falling. Here’s an interesting but absurd guide: How to Survive a Long Fall.

Surviving the impact of the fall is only the first part of the problem. It’s hard to survive adrift on the open sea under the best conditions. Even if you are completely unharmed by the fall, are a strong swimmer, have bouyant clothing or a life vest, many other factors such as hypothermia, exposure, or sharks can prove fatal in short order. If your fall is not immediately noticed and the ship does not stop and attempt to rescue you, your chances of survival, or of ever being found, are very low. Rather than estimating the odds of all those factors, we can look at a sampling of recorded falls and their outcomes: Incidences of people falling overboard on cruise ships.

The above statistics seem to coincide nicely with the earlier information based on estimated height and impact speeds. We might conclude with a fairly wide margin of error that you can survive the fall a little more than half the time, and then perhaps expect to be rescued alive a little more than one time in ten if you do. Your overall chances of surviving might be in the 5% to 15% range, but certainly not in your favor. A good question would be whether most people know the odds are so poor.

debondeck.jpgHere’s Debbie contemplating a late night dive off the tenth deck of the Carnival Miracle. At a height of about 100ft, chances are she’d survive the fall if she landed feet first. After her 10 minute moonlight swim, she’d probably find that the ship had cruised off about five miles. Given that Stacy and Andrea would have seen the jump and thrown her diving gear to her, she would most likely have been picked up safely by the passing yacht of a carribean drug lord, who in all probability would have made her captain and given her a ship of her own, and a monkey.

Here’s a related story that made the news not too long ago:
15 Year Old Girl is Served Alcohol and Falls Overboard


One Response to Overboard

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