Cruise Survival Skills: Falling Overboard

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Coast Guard News/Flickr

Over the weekend, a passenger sailing from Stockholm to Helsinki survived seven hours in the frigid Baltic Sea after falling overboard. That he accidentally fell off and lived to tell about it is unusual; most don’t. While its something that does not happen often, we checked in with the Coast Guard on what to do to increase your odds of survival.

We begin on the Baltic Queen ferry just off the Finnish island of Aland. The water is a chilling 16ºC (60ºF) when a 36-year-old Estonian man falls overboard on Friday night. His absence is not discovered until the next day when the ferry docks. Security cameras show the man falling from the vessel and enable Finnish sea rescue to find him two hours later. Suffering from hypothermia, with a body temperature of 26º C (78ºF), he should be dead.

Actually, he is lucky that he did not die immediately when hitting the water. “When a person falls in the cold water, their body responds to the initial shock with an instantaneous gasp for air, which if their head is underwater may cause the person to swallow water and drown,” says U.S. Coast Guard Safety Specialist Walt Taylor in Coast Guard Cold Water Safety Tips.

The best way to survive falling overboard? Don’t.Most stories of passengers going overboard do not end well. But on a big ship cruise, falling off is difficult to do. In “Death By Cruise Ship,” we tag suicide by cruise ship – alcohol/drug-induced shenanigans close to the edge of the ship and sitting/standing on the guard rail of a balcony stateroom – as common ways to fall off, all of which are avoidable.

But what if for one reason or another you fell off, did not die on impact and wound up in the ocean, watching your cruise ship sail away. What to do? Experts recommend treading water, screaming and waving your arms frantically. The best odds of being rescued are right when it happens and someone might happen to see you.

If the ship sails off without you? “Floating on your back takes the least energy. Lie on your back in the water, spread your arms and legs, and arch your back. By controlling your breathing in and out, your face will always be out of the water and you may even sleep in this position for short periods,” says WildernessSurvival.