What do I do if I fall overboard? (2023)

What do I do if I fall overboard? (1)

The sun is shining, the water is warm an­d you and your family are heading out for a three-hour tour on your rented sailboat. You've hoisted the sail, the kids have swa­bbed the deck and you're bearing away toward a lovely horizon. You have plans to drop anchor, fish a bit and if you're lucky, grill up some fresh seafood for everyone. Then the unthinkable happens. The boom comes loose, and when you move to­ secure it, you slip and fall into the ocean. You sink for a moment before bobbing back up to t­he surface, only to see the boat careening away, your family searching in vain for a glimpse of you.

­It may sound like a worst case scenario, but a man overboard is actually one of the most common boating emergencies. There are lots of reasons someone suddenly might find himself in the drink. Bad weather is one. Storm fronts can roll in quickly at sea, with strong winds and waves that tilt a boat or ship to-and-fro, making it tough to stay on your feet on deck. Another reason is simple inexperience -- not watching for swinging booms, not realizing how slippery the deck is, moving around the edges without holding on. You could be leaning over the edge, seasick, or maybe you've had too much alcohol and carelessness tilts you into the seawater.


You may think this kind of thing only happens on small sailboats or fishing vessels in rough seas. But on major cruise lines between 1995 and 2007, there were nearly 100 persons overboard [source: cruisejunkie.com]. In some of these cases, people leapt from the ship, either in a suicide attempt or under the throes of alcohol. Other cases were accidental. At least one is believed to be a murder case. The biggest challenge when someone falls from a cruise ship is stopping or turning the ship. It's hard enough to turn a small motorboat or sailboat; it takes much longer for a cruise ship.

Knowing the correct procedures to follow in a man overboard scenario is the only chance you have at pulling a loved one from the water or being rescued yourself. How easy is it to spot a man overboard? Find out on the next page.



(Video) Search underway for man who went overboard on Carnival cruise ship

  1. Man Overboard Rescue Procedures, Steps 1-5
  2. Man Overboard Treatment
  3. When You're the Person Overboard

Man Overboard Rescue Procedures, Steps 1-5

What do I do if I fall overboard? (2)

When a person suddenly slips overboard, it's frightening, to say the least. The good news is, if someone spots the accident and everyone works together, there's a good chance you can get your companion back into the boat alive and well. The captain should be in charge of leading the rescue effort and assigning jobs as soon as he's aware of the accident.

Step one: The first thing to do if you see someone go overboard is shout "MAN OVERBOARD" as loud as you can along with a port (left) or starboard (right) location. You need to keep your eyes on the victim at all times, so channel your inner drill sergeant and scream. Keep yelling until you get a response that someone else has heard you. As soon as the shout is relayed to the captain, he should shut down the engines or drop sail immediately.


Step two: The spotter should point -- and keep pointing -- at the victim. Spotting and keeping an eye on someone in the middle of the ocean is extremely difficult. Your boat is most likely speeding away in theopposite direction, so if you divert your eyes for even a split second, you could lose him or her. Pointing will give everyone else on board immediate direction. Ideally, the person that spotted the accident should remain the spotter throughout the entire rescue. If you need to reassign the duty, make sure the new spotter has locked eyes on the victim.

Step three: Have someone throw a flotation device into the water for the victim to swim to. Hopefully the person is wearing a personal flotation device (PFD), but many recreational boaters fail to do so. If your boat is traveling at a high rate of speed, start throwing in anything that floats to leave a trail to the scene. Seat cushions, magazines, even your hat -- anything visible that floats can work.

Step four: If you have a smaller or slow-moving boat, you may be able to coast to a stop and throw a lifeline to the victim, and the crisis is averted.

Step five: If the boat has gone too far past the victim, then step four isn't possible. In this case, you'll need to make a turn back to the victim to pick him or her up. Generally, two types of turns are used to quickly return to a point of origin -- the elliptical and the Williamson. The elliptical is an oval (racetrack-shaped) turn and results in an approach to the rear of the victim. After the vessel has some space from the victim, it turns hard on same the side that the incident occurred 180 degrees, straightens out and then performs a second 180 turn to circle around toward the victim. The Williamson turn -- named for United States Navy officer John Williamson -- may be a little quicker. For this one, make a hard turn immediately toward the same side the person went overboard and hold a straight line at 60 degrees from the victim. Then turn hard back the opposite way and circle around until you're on a course heading straight toward the victim from the front. The Williamson takes the shape of a sideways teardrop, with the point of origin being the duct.

Once you've boated back to the victim, how do you pull him or her from the water? Find out on the next page.


(Video) Louisiana teen still lost at sea after jumping off cruise ship in Bahamas | LiveNOW from FOX

Man Overboard Treatment

What do I do if I fall overboard? (3)

At this point, your boat has returned to the victim's side. The captain should be careful to approach slowly and cautiously.

Step six: Toss a lifeline with a loop tied into the end to the victim and have him or her hook the loop around their body under the armpits. Tow the person in slowly. If the boat is small, get two people to carefully lift the victim up into the boat by both arms with the victim's back facing them. You can also pull the victim by the life vest if he or she is wearing one. If the victim is strong enough, he or she may be able to climb aboard themselves with the help of a swim ladder.


Unless the accident occurs in the warm waters of the Caribbean, there's a good chance the water is cold. Water has a drastic effect on the body and can cool a person down 25 times faster than cold air [source: boatingbasicsonline.com]. Once aboard, you may find that the victim is suffering from one of the following cold-related illnesses:

Cold shock - Dropping into cold water can cause a quick gasp that lets water into your lungs. If this happens you could drown immediately.

Swimming failure - In cold water, you'll lose dexterity in your limbs quickly and may not able to swim well. When you lose coordination, it's tough to keep your head above water, increasing your risk of drowning.

Hypothermia - Hypothermia happens when your body loses more heat than it produces, and your core body temperature drops below 95 degrees. Some of the symptoms of hypothermia are:

  • slurred speech
  • stiff joints
  • loss of coordination
  • slow pulse
  • uncontrollable shivering
  • loss of bladder control
  • puffy face
  • mental confusion

To combat hypothermia, get the victim into a warmer environment immediately. Cover him or her with blankets or sleeping bags. Most heat is lost through the head, so cover it immediately. Remove wet clothing and replace it with some dry duds. Always handle hypothermia victims carefully, since they can easily go into cardiac arrest. Keep him horizontal and calm -- reassure him that he's going to be fine. Huddle around and hug the victim to create warmth and then seek professional medical attention as soon as possible.

Here are some more man overboard tips:

  • Never jump into the water to rescue a victim unless you're wearing a life vest and are tethered to the boat. Rescue swimming is difficult in the ocean and should only be used as a last resort.
  • If the rescue is at night, light a white flare to illuminate the area. The flare will light up the reflective tape on the life vest.
  • Never back a boat up to a man overboard -- the propeller can be deadly.
(Video) What Happens If You Fall Off A Cruise Ship?

If you haven't succumbed to cold shock, move ahead to the next page to learn what you can do if you're the person overboard.


When You're the Person Overboard

What do I do if I fall overboard? (4)

Going overboard is a frightening situation because it happens so quickly. One moment you're enjoying a day at sea. The next, you're plunged into rough and maybe even frigid waters with a chance of dying. There's no easier way to say it than this -- the only job of the man overboard is to stay alive and keep head above water. A rescue attempt isn't a success if the crew pulls a dead body onto the deck. If you're the man overboard, there are a few things you can do to help you in your bid to survive.

If you think you're going overboard, cover your face and mouth with both hands to avoid cold shock. If you aren't wearing a personal flotation device, you'll need to float or tread water. The best way to float is to recline flat on your back with your head above water. Arch your back, extend your arms to the side and let your legs float up in an extended position. This float will help you to conserve energy.


Another method that can save you even more energy is the survival-float, or dead man's float. Here's how to perform this method:

  • Take a large breath and then put your face in the water.
  • Relax the rest of your body and let it hang -- the back of your head is the only part above the surface.
  • When you need a breath, pick up your head and exhale, moving your arms and legs just enough to keep afloat.
  • Breathe in deeply and repeat.

If you're a strong swimmer you should be able to tread water. It requires more energy though, so only try this technique if you're certain you'll be rescued very soon and you feel strong enough. Use scissor kicks in a vertical position while waving your arms back and forth with your head above water. If you're wearing a PFD, relax, lie on your back and conserve your energy. If you're in cold water, pull your knees to your chest and hold themto help toretain heat. This is known as the H.E.L.P. -- Heat Escape Lessoning Position.

If you're on a cruise ship and fall overboard, unfortunately your chances of surviving are pretty slim. Stopping a cruise ship takes a while and spotting a man overboard from as high as eight stories above water isn't likely. Rescue boats are deployed as soon as possible, but the likelihood of finding the victim isn't great. The ship is required to make a reasonable search for the victim, but at this time there aren't many regulations in place. Senator John Kerry introduced a cruise ship safety bill in June 2008 that would require among other things:

(Video) Man falls overboard on Carnival cruise ship: officials

  • peepholes in cabin doors
  • increase guard rail heights to 54 inches
  • implement man overboard alert systems

­For more information on survival and travel, please unwind from the H.E.L.P. position and visit the links below.

Testy Man Overboard

Professor Roger Boshier of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver has done extensive research on man overboard cases, studying the emotional and physical challenges of hundreds of victims who lived to tell their stories. He found that victims often displayed irrational emotions and actions. Oddly, victims thrown overboard in cold water often attempted to take off their clothes, which is a not a good idea. Victims also showed signs of anger regarding the efforts of the rescuers.


Lots More Information

Related­ HowStuffWorks Articles

  • How to Survive a Shipwreck
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  • How to Start a Fire Without a Match
  • How to Survive a Plane Crash
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  • What causes heat stroke?
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  • What if I were ice fishing and fell through the ice?
  • How Search and Rescue Works
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More Great Links

  • "Coping with Man Overboard Situation." sailingandboating.com. 2008. http://www.sailingandboating.co.uk/Coping-with-man-overboard-.html
  • "Crew Overboard." boatingbasicsonline.com. 2008. http://www.boatingbasicsonline.com/course/boating/8_3.php
  • "Cruise and Ferry Passengers and Crew Overboard 1995 - 2008." cruisejunkie.com. 2008.http://www.cruisejunkie.com/Overboard.html
  • "Kerry Introduces Legislation to Protect Passengers on Cruise Ships." senate.gov. June 26, 2008.http://kerry.senate.gov/cfm/record.cfm?id=299847
  • "Man Overboard!" freemarine.com. 2008.http://www.free-marine.com/i2overboard.htm
  • "Man Overboard: Cutter Jarvis crew conducts survival training in Kodiak." piersystem.com. Jan. 26, 2005. http://www.piersystem.com/go/doc/780/61192/
  • "Man-Overboard." sailtexas.com. 2008. http://www.sailtexas.com/ManOverboard.html
  • "Water Related Personal Survival." scuba-doc.com. 2008.http://www.scuba-doc.com/overbrd.htm
  • Bathhurst, Bella. "Man Overboard." lostmag.com. June 2006. http://www.lostmag.com/issue7/overboard.php
  • Boshier, Robert. "Man Overboard: Survivor Stories and Prevention." edst.educ. March 2002.http://www.edst.educ.ubc.ca/rboshier/RBmanoverboard.htm
  • Fosha, Rebecca. "How To Survive a Cold Night at Sea." navy.mil. June 2003. http://safetycenter.navy.mil/media/fathom/issues/AprJun03/howtosurvive.htm


What do I do if I fall overboard? ›

If you fall overboard, try to get as much of your body out of the water as possible, for example, by climbing back on to the vessel. If you cannot climb onto the vessel, try to grab hold of it or any other floating object. Try to stay with the vessel. Only swim to shore if it's very close.

What to do if you fall overboard in the ocean? ›

The best way to float is to recline flat on your back with your head above water. Arch your back, extend your arms to the side and let your legs float up in an extended position. This float will help you to conserve energy. Another method that can save you even more energy is the survival-float, or dead man's float.

What is the best way to recover a person overboard? ›


If the person is conscious and able to climb, the safest way to retrieve them from the water is with a swim platform or boarding ladder. Throw them a flotation device with a towline attached and pull them to the ladder or platform. The person can then climb back into the boat safely.

What should you do first when a passenger falls overboard? ›

What to Do If a Passenger Falls Overboard
  1. Step 1: Immediately slow down and stop the boat.
  2. Step 2: Quickly throw something buoyant, like a life buoy or a lifejacket, to the person overboard. ...
  3. Step 3: Assign someone in your boat to keep the overboard person in sight at all times.

How long can a person stay afloat in water? ›

There will be circumstances over which you have no control, such as water temperature and sea conditions. However, you can make the most out of your situation. A person can survive for an hour in 5°C (41°F) water, 2 hours in 10°C (50°F), 6 hours in 15°C (59°F), and over 25 hours in 20°C (68°F) and above.

Can you survive going overboard? ›

Do people always die when they go overboard? No. Survival rates depend on several factors, including whether the person was injured by impact with the water or part of the ship on the way down and how quickly the person can be rescued by the cruise ship or Coast Guard.

What is the first thing to do man overboard? ›

The first thing to do is raise awareness of the emergency. The person who sees the accident must raise the alarm by shouting “Man overboard!” loud and clear enough to alert the rest of the crew. They should remain in place in order to maintain continuous visual contact with the victim.

What side do you pick up a man overboard? ›

Then pick the victim up on the leeward (down wind) side of the boat There are three benefits to doing it this way. This protects the victim from the wind and the waves. The leeward side is usually the lowest side to the water. Using this side will make it easier to get the victim back onboard.

What is the first thing to do in case you see man go overboard? ›

The person who sees a man overboard should raise the alarm and shout 'man overboard! ' loud and clear to alert all crew members. They should maintain eye contact with the person who has fallen. If the person is close to the ship, floatation equipment should be lowered in his direction.

How many people survive falling overboard? ›

If the ship does not get to the fellow passenger who has fallen overboard, the deadly sea gulps them down. At times, with lower seawater temperatures, hypothermia kicks in, while in warm waters, deadly sharks are in danger. Only 17% to 25% of the fallen passengers make it out alive and live to tell their tales.

What are the three maneuvers in rescuing a man overboard? ›

Actions to be taken in case of a “man overboard” incident
  • Release lifebuoy and maneuver to pick up man, always with respect to the man.
  • Call the master.
  • Sound alarm and commence Williamson turn.
  • Stop engines and place them on stand by.
  • Alert by radio vessels in vicinity.
Jul 11, 2018

How often do sailors fall overboard? ›

Since 2000, 284 people have gone overboard or fallen off cruise ships and a further 41 have fallen off large ferries. In any given month, approximately two people go overboard and between 17 percent and 25 percent are rescued.

What is the longest someone has survived in water? ›

José Salvador Alvarenga holds the record for the longest solo survival at sea. He was adrift for 438 days, and traveled over 6,700 miles.

Is it better to float or tread water? ›

The U.S. Navy recommends treading water to check for floating objects, survivors, and rescue crafts, and while activating flotation equipment or signaling for rescue. Lifeguards and water polo players also find value in treading water.

Is it safe to stay underwater for 24 hours? ›

For reasons that still aren't well understood, human skin starts to break down after continuous immersion in water of a few days. You'd suffer open sores and be liable to fungal and bacterial infections just from the spores on your skin, even if the water itself was perfectly sterile.

Should you always do when a person falls overboard? ›

React immediately

Yell, "Man overboard!" so that everyone on board the boat is aware of the situation, and stop the boat as soon as you realize someone has fallen off the boat. At least one person should maintain visual contact with the victim (also called the swimmer), says the U.S. Coast Guard's Boating Safety.

Did they ever find the lady that jumped off the Carnival cruise ship? ›

The Coast Guard did not disclose the woman's identity or how she fell from the ship. CBS News reported that the Coast Guard recovered the woman's body at around 7:30 a.m.

How long can a person survive in the ocean after being swept overboard? ›

Survive at Sea FAQ

Without food and drinking water, a person stranded at sea will most likely not be able to survive for more than three days.

What is the biggest danger to life? ›

The five biggest threats to our natural world … and how we can...
  • Changes in land and sea use.
  • Direct exploitation of natural resources.
  • The climate crisis.
  • Pollution.
  • Invasive species.
Oct 14, 2021

What do you throw to someone overboard? ›

A lifebuoy is a throwable type of flotation device with a line attached. The line is used to pull the lifebuoy once it has been thrown to a person in the water.

What are the four instruction of man overboard? ›

Press the MOB button on the GPS. – Release the lifebuoy to the MOB. Mark the MOB with a buoyant smoke flare. – Assign crewmember to point at the MOB in the water.

What is the best maneuver for man overboard? ›

Head into the wind and tack, leave the jib fluttering. Veer off until the boat is at a broad reach. Turn upwind until the vessel is pointing at the victim; at this point the vessel should be on a close reach. Slacken the mainsail until the vessel comes to a stop with the victim in the lee side of the boat.

What is the most crucial moment for a successful recovery of a man overboard? ›

Safely Turning the Boat Around and Returning to the PIW

The Quick Stop method highlights the ultimate goal of man overboard recovery: stay as near to the swimmer as possible. But you have to do this maneuver safely so that you can successfully complete the rescue.

Can you survive falling overboard a cruise ship? ›

"All of these factors make it very difficult for people to survive if they're adrift," Bigney, who has taught at the Boulder Outdoor Survival School for decades, told Insider. Going overboard on a cruise ship is extremely rare, but the vast majority of those who do are never rescued.

Do cruise ships have jails? ›

Typically the jail onboard is below deck in the marshaling area where provisions are loaded or somewhere along I-95 (the route that runs through the middle of the ship). However, cruise lines do not use the onboard jail as much as they used to. Instead, many lines will confine guests in their cabin instead.

What's the highest fall someone has survived from building? ›

Vesna Vulović (Serbian Cyrillic: Весна Вуловић, pronounced [ʋêsna ʋûːloʋitɕ]; 3 January 1950 – 23 December 2016) was a Serbian flight attendant who holds the Guinness world record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute: 10,160 m (33,330 ft; 6.31 mi).

Why do sailors throw cargo overboard in a storm? ›

Jettison (jet-uh-suhn) is a term used in maritime law to describe the act of throwing cargo overboard to stabilize a ship that is in immediate danger. During a storm, the captain ordered the crew to jettison some of the cargo to prevent the ship from sinking.

How do ships know if someone falls overboard? ›

30 cruise ships owned by Carnival and Disney have been fitted with V-MOB sensors used to automatically alert the bridge of a man overboard incident. There are CCTV cameras on cruise ships but these are usually used as evidence after the event and are not being consistently monitored.

What activity did sailors do most to pass the time? ›

Sailors sit reading letters. Other sailors spent their free time playing games like dominos, checkers, and cards. Two sailors play checkers on the deck of a ship. Music was another way that sailors passed time.

How do you survive a fall in deep water? ›

"Lay back and calm yourself down. Even if you just have your face out of the water, you can breathe. Get some air in your lungs to help you float. Try to get someone's attention by waving your hands or yelling."

What happens if you fall in the ocean? ›

The pressure from the water would push in on the person's body, causing any space that's filled with air to collapse. (The air would be compressed.) So, the lungs would collapse. At the same time, the pressure from the water would push water into the mouth, filling the lungs back up again with water instead of air.

How deep can a person go in the ocean without dying? ›

While the recommended maximum depth for conventional scuba diving is 130 feet, technical divers may work in the range of 170 feet to 350 feet, sometimes even deeper.

Who was the longest person lost at sea? ›

José Salvador Alvarenga holds the record for the longest solo survival at sea. He was adrift for 438 days, and traveled over 6,700 miles.

Has anyone been stranded in the middle of the ocean? ›

This Man Was Stranded at Sea for 438 Days. His Survival Story Will Amaze You.

Did they ever find the lady that jumped off the cruise ship? ›

The body of a 36-year-old woman who fell from a cruise ship was recovered on Thursday morning off the coast of Florida. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the woman's body was recovered about 18 miles from the shore of Port Canaveral after she went overboard from the cruise ship MSC Meraviglia.

Is there a jail on a cruise ship? ›

Typically the jail onboard is below deck in the marshaling area where provisions are loaded or somewhere along I-95 (the route that runs through the middle of the ship). However, cruise lines do not use the onboard jail as much as they used to. Instead, many lines will confine guests in their cabin instead.

What is the highest fall into water someone has survived? ›

And Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulović holds the Guinness world record for the longest survived fall — over 30,000 feet — after her plane blew up in the 1970s, though some cynics think the real height of Vulović's fall was a mere 2,600 feet.

Can you survive a fall by landing in water? ›

Assuming you've reached terminal velocity — the maximum falling speed — it won't feel good impacting water, but you still could survive if it's deep. Try to hit the water head or feet first to minimize your body's surface area that will take the brunt of the force of impact.

Why can't we go to the bottom of the ocean? ›

The intense pressures in the deep ocean make it an extremely difficult environment to explore.” Although you don't notice it, the pressure of the air pushing down on your body at sea level is about 15 pounds per square inch. If you went up into space, above the Earth's atmosphere, the pressure would decrease to zero.

How long would it take to fall to the bottom of the ocean? ›

In a flat sea with little to no current, it would take a penny approximately 3 ½ hours to fall to the floor of Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the ocean, from the surface, according to some mathematicians.

Can you survive a fall from any height into water? ›

The upper survival limits of human tolerance to impact velocity in water are evidently close to 100 ft/sec (68.2 mph) corrected velocity, or the equivalent of a 186-foot free-fall.


1. Man falls overboard during holiday cruise to the Bahamas #shorts
(CBS Evening News)
2. Video shows man falling overboard from cruise ship
(Miami Herald)
3. Partner of man who went overboard from cruise ship relates what led her to alert the ship's crew
(13News Now)
4. Woman Who Fell Off Cruise Ship in 2012 Explains How Terrifying It Is
(Inside Edition)
5. Missing teen jumped off ship into ‘really shark infested’ water: official | New York Post
(New York Post)
6. Virginia man falls overboard on cruise
(WSLS 10)


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