The Truth about Falling Off A Cruise Ship

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I’ve never fallen off a cruise ship.

This is no small admission, given that I drink quite a bit while on board, travel solo and am known to be a bit of a clutz. But the secret to my success in this department comes down to two words: personal responsibility.

I bring it up because this week, the family of a woman who — while traveling with friends aboard the Carnival Liberty — consumed too much alcohol, climbed up the railing and fell overboard is suing the cruise line. And while this is without doubt a tragic situation, the story raises serious questions about both how often this happens and who is to blame.

Beyond The Numbers

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Photo: PortMiami Twitter

In reporting the story, NBC’s affiliate in Miami stated that “nearly 300 people” have fallen off of cruise ships since 1995. And when delivered by an intense newscaster reporting on a family’s tragedy, that sounds like an awful lot, even though simple math allows you to conclude that it happens to approximately 13 people a year. And heck, maybe 13 people a year falling off ships sounds like a lot, too… but consider the fact that over 11 million people in the United States alone took cruises over the past 12 months, and you begin to get a clearer picture.

Playing the Odds


If you were told tomorrow that your odds of winning the lottery were 13 out of 11 million, you probably wouldn’t run out to buy a ticket. (Fun fact: They are actually far worse, but the lottery folks would much rather you think of it in terms of “all you need is a dollar and a dream.”) Heck, your chances of getting hit by lightning this year are 1 in 960,000… which, now that I type those words, is a lot lower than I imagined! Yet they are significantly higher than the 13 out of 11 million chance that you will wind up going overboard.

The Blame Game

What can be disturbing in these types of stories is the way they are reported. Newscasters breathlessly talk about passengers “falling” overboard as if they tripped on an uneven sidewalk. Anyone who has ever been aboard a cruise ship knows that it is literally impossible to simply “fall” off a ship without first climbing atop something. Maybe it’s a chair on your balcony, maybe you want to perch on the railing for a selfie. One thing you are not doing is simply walking along the deck when — woops! — over the edge you tumble, like a discarded napkin blown away on a breeze.

Alcohol often plays a role in these cases, and it’s easy to point a finger at the bartenders who may have over-served a guest. There is, perhaps, some validity to that claim. But doing so takes personal responsibility away from the person consuming the alcohol, not to mention the family and friends accompanying them. Would you rather put your fate in the hands of a stranger who is serving you alcohol or the people with whom you are celebrating?

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(flickr/Ronnie Robertson)

In the wake of any passenger going overboard, there is also a renewed cry for increased protections against it happening in the future. The question becomes exactly how that should be done. There are technologies being developed — including one which would essentially use beams of light to detect when someone has fallen over and, when the light beam is broken, sound an alarm — but there are, at this point, major flaws in the systems.

For example, they might have difficulty distinguishing between a body going over the railing and, say, a deck chair doing the same. And it’s worth noting that once you’ve gone overboard, even if an alarm has sounded or someone has noticed, it may already be too late. Stopping an in-motion ship is not as simple as tapping the brakes on your car, and locating someone in the vastness of the sea is a daunting-at-best task.

cruise balcony

The most obvious — and draconian — solution is, of course, to limit passengers’ access to the ocean. Higher railings on decks or even a complete lack of stateroom balconies. But given that for many cruisers, the almost primal urge to connect with the sea is one of the reasons we sail to begin with, this seems unlikely.

Perhaps at the end of the day, the answer is to accept that accidents — often tragic, sometimes fatal — happen. On land, in the sky and on the sea, they simply… happen. In their aftermath, we look for answers where none can be found and seek change where perhaps none is needed. It’s in our nature to blame, especially when trying to comprehend a situation which happens so rarely, we never even imagined it to be a possibility.

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