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The Truth About Falling Overboard

Like in any big city, few stars can be seen at night on a cruise ship. Even if sailing black waters with black sky far from mankind, the ships themselves blast so much light pollution that you see nothing but black. It’s just like how stars are not visible from the surface of the moon. I pondered this while at the stern rail, as aft, port, and starboard were impenetrable black. Far beyond the bow, however, the orange glow of oil refineries illuminated the swamps of Louisiana. We were nearing the mouth of the Mississippi River and occasional navigation beacons of red and green popped through the broken surface of the sea.

“What happens if I fall overboard?” a man had asked me earlier. It was such a common question that my answer had become habit. “The ship will stop and a boat will pick you up.”

But this was only half true. I gazed into the wake of the ship and watched the brown water churn. The waves looked very small indeed from the top decks. If the hundred-plus foot fall did not kill the passenger, he would disappear in the gargantuan swells. Fortunately, it is unlikely modern azipod propellers would chop him into chum. Safety training was very clear in the case of a man overboard: throw a life-ring first, then call the bridge. People assume the life-ring is simply a flotation device, but it is in fact much more. A person’s head will disappear from sight within seconds from the deck of a big ship. After throwing a life ring we were trained to grab someone, anyone, to physically point at the swimmer and not stop until he’s found, no matter how long it takes. That physical act of pointing is paramount, for even if aware of the swimmer, he’ll be lost in less than one minute at sea. But at night? And if no one sees you fall? Goodbye.

That very cruise someone had, in fact, gone overboard. Rumors of how and why among the crew and guests were rampant. The leading story among passengers was that two honeymooners were arguing and there was a push. Crew thought differently. Another suicide, most agreed. For suicides were not so rare on cruise ships. More than a few folks intentionally spent their every last penny on a final week of wild abandon and, late on the final night, jumped overboard. What better way to ensure no one will rescue you? How many people are looking aft of a ship at 3AM? It is possible to survive such falls, but unlikely unless you’re a fighter.

Though statistically utterly insignificant, unexplained deaths on a cruise ship do happen. Because most occur in international waters, reporting obligations and behavior are decidedly less than altruistic. Cruise lines invariably fudge reporting, because people read headlines, not articles. Whether it’s a suicide or not matters little to critics, who pounce upon any hint of cruise line recklessness. Even if it is a suicide, days can pass before verification from land-based authorities, even with the presence of a note. By then, sensational headlines can blow things wildly out of proportion.

On that cruise, nobody knew for certain what happened. An investigation was resolved somewhere on land, as was always the case. The only fact the crew knew for sure was that the man was never found until he washed up on the Gulf Coast several days later.

I focused on a floating piece of flotsam and watched it disappear into the night. It was lost to the blackness within fifteen seconds.

By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.

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Discover life below the waterline, where dozens of nationalities combine in ways none could have ever imagined. Strange cabins mates, strange food, strange ports, and strange ways (not to mention strange guests!). From the author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential comes the memories, the dramas, and most of all the laughs, of a job unlike anything else in the world. We enjoy vacation. They live adventure.

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I can't see an accidental "fall" overboard, unless you're a wide receiver going high for a deep pass...and just happen to clear the railing. And I can almost understand the feeling behind one big, last, amazing fling.

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