How to stop “Man Overboard” emergencies

Time for the cruise industry to better prevent and detect man overboard incidents

Golden Princess, Copyright © 2014 Robert PernettMan Overboard! Last week, a 22-year-old male passenger went missing from the Golden Princess as it sailed in the Tasman Sea returning to Melbourne, Australia. The ship, on a 13–night cruise, searched for the missing passenger through the night and into the morning. Eventually, the search was ended, as there was no likelihood the passenger could have survived.

The ship apparently had extensive CCTV coverage of the exterior of the ship which captured the man going overboard, but didn’t warn the crew the incident occurred.

Dr. Ross A. Klein, Associate Dean, St. John’s College, Memorial University of Newfoundland, has researched the cruise industry and man overboard (MOB) incidents for almost two decades. According to his data, since 2000, 325 people have gone overboard from cruise ships and ferries with cabins and multi-day itineraries. That comes to about 17.4 MOB incidents, world-wide, each year.

It’s true that 17 passengers and crew members going overboard, out of approximately 26.7 million cruisers annually, is a tiny percentage, but I think even that tiny number deserves better prevention and detection to save their lives.

How to Sail Happy DownloadThe Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has stated that since cruise lines have universally raised railing heights and put other barriers in place, MOB incidents are solely the “result of an intentional or reckless act.”

Assuming CLIA is correct, is it reasonable for the cruise lines to deny all responsibility for all MOB incidents resulting from passengers’ reckless behavior?

Moreover, whether or not the statement is true, is it acceptable for the cruise industry to allow any MOBs to die, even just seventeen or so each year, without taking reasonable steps, beyond raising their railing height to prevent their deaths?

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I’ve been on cruises on various cruise lines and have personally witnessed many passengers so drunk that when they leave ships’ bars, clubs, casinos and events they have almost no self-control or the ability to understand whether or not they’re in danger. I’ve seen intoxicated passengers lean over railings on walkways before they somehow caught themselves and one fall into a swimming pool, fully clothed.

Aren’t passengers responsible for their drinking? I think so, but doesn’t the cruise line bear responsibility, too? I think they do.

In the U.S., dram shop laws govern the conduct and liability of establishments that serve alcoholic beverages. When those establishments continue to serve alcohol to visibly intoxicated people, in many states, those laws hold the establishments liable for injuries to the people they served and injuries or damages those people cause, due to their intoxication.

VPN: Key for Travelers' Internet Security DownloadIn 2004, in the landmark case, Hall v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, the court ruled that under general maritime law, cruise lines had an established duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of their passengers and therefore could be held liable for over-serving passengers to the point of intoxication causing alcohol-related impairment.

Even since that decision, from my personal observation, it’s rare for cruise ship personnel to stop serving alcohol to any adult passenger who is drunk. In fact, I’ve never personally witnessed it. It’s about time that cruise lines stop serving visibly intoxicated passengers to help prevent their reckless behavior.

I think there’s more that cruise lines can do about MOB incidents. It won’t prevent MOB events, but it can improve the chance an MOB victim can be recovered alive.

The chances of successfully finding an MOB victim alive drops quickly over time. It typically takes a cruise ship about one mile to stop when at sea. Without the ability to automatically detect if someone has gone overboard, in a best case scenario, if it takes just 15 minutes for the ship’s crew to confirm an MOB report, the ship will have likely moved about seven miles since the MOB occurred. Particularly in rough seas or in frigid waters, recovery time is crucial to passenger survival.

Automatic MOB detection systems use radar and infrared cameras, integrated with a computer system that constantly reviews the incoming data in real time, to quickly alert the ship’s crew if someone has gone overboard. An automatic MOB detection system can alert the ship’s crew of an incident in seconds. The systems aren’t inexpensive at $300K-$500K, but compared to the $1B cost of some of the new mega-ships, that’s not too high a cost for what they can do.

Automatic MOB detection systems were initially plagued by false positives, indicating an MOB when there was none, unnecessarily disrupting a cruise. Today, according to MOB detection systems’ manufacturers, extensive development has substantially reduced false positives and improved detection reliability.

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It’s time for the cruise industry to voluntarily begin to install automatic MOB detection systems on their ships and work out any kinks they have to minimize false positive disruptions and maximize their effectiveness to save lives.

In addition, the time has long past for the cruise industry to take their responsibility for drunk passengers seriously. Royal Caribbean has said of serving intoxicated passengers, “we see no evidence that these incidents are more prevalent than they are in the general population.” That may be true, but bar patrons in Miami can’t leave the bar, walk 50 feet, then fall 100 feet into the abyss of the Atlantic, never to be seen again.

(Image: Golden Princess, Copyright © 2014 Robert Pernett)