Cruise ships are massive, floating cities. Blocks of identical staterooms rise like luxury apartments, and with so many dining venues and amenities, ships feel less like nautical objects and more like shopping-mall food courts with swimming pools, waterslides, Jacuzzis, and casinos. Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, can carry more than 6,000 passengers and 2,100 crew members. With that many people aboard a ship, something is bound to go wrong.
According to CruiseJunkie.com, 22.1 million people took a cruise vacation in 2014, and there were only 22 incidents of man-overboard (MOB). In other words, tourists have a one in a million chance of falling off a cruise ship. “Alcohol is involved in 40 percent of the cases,” says Miami-based maritime attorney Jim Walker. There are a high percentage of cases of foul play, reckless acts, suicide, and other unexplainable maritime mysteries, but few people, according to Walker, are simply getting knocked overboard by a rouge wave or strong gust of wind.
In 2010, the Coast Guard established the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act. The CVSSA regulates height requirements for railings and trains crew members how to respond to emergency situations. It requires that all ships built after 2010 have MOB technology –detection devices such as motion sensors, thermal detection systems and drones that are designed to alert the bridge to stop the ship when a passenger goes overboard.
While it’s rare for a passenger to fall overboard, it’s even rarer to fall off a cruise ship and survive. Luckily for these 10 hapless vacationers, their man-overboard stories had a happy ending.
10 Robert Mado
According to several witnesses, Robert Mado, a 31-year old crew member on Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas, jumped overboard while the ship was en route from Miami to Key West. However, reports are unclear whether the “assistant purser” actually jumped off the ship or fell. The Majesty’s captain quickly sent a distress call to the Coast Guard. Berry Bena, a Coast Guard petty officer, found Mado treading water off Cutler Bay two hours later. Officials said he was in stable condition.
9 An Occurrence on the Crystal Harmony
February 2005. 6:10 a.m. The Crystal Harmony was just south of Ensenada on its way to San Diego when galley workers saw someone fall. The men quickly threw out a life ring and tossed a smoke pot to mark the spot, while officers on the bridge turned the boat around. The man was pulled to safety, and he later disembarked in San Diego for hospital evaluation. According to Cruise Critic, the man was traveling alone but it’s not known how he fell overboard.
8 Norwegian Spirit’s Teen Hero
Three hours after setting sail from New Orleans, the Norwegian Spirit was still making its way down the Mississippi River. At around 8 p.m. on June 12, 2011, 16-year old Alex Giffel saw a passenger go overboard. Giffel, who was on a cruise with his family, threw the man a life ring, and then told his 21-year old cousin to alert the crew. A rescue boat was dispatched, the man was pulled to safety, and the ship’s medical team treated him for minor injuries.
A month later, Norwegian Cruise Line and the Port of New Orleans recognized Alex Giffel’s quick response in a ceremony on the ship in New Orleans. As a token of appreciation, Captain Evans Hoyt presented Giffel with the life ring he threw to the fellow passenger.
7 Frank Jade
At 1,186 feet long and 242, 999 tons, the Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas is the second largest cruise ship in the world. With a ship that size it comes as no surprise the Oasis crew didn’t realize their passenger, 22-year old Frank Jade, had fallen overboard eight miles off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico.
Luckily, the Disney Magic, sailing the same route, rescued Jade when passengers saw him floating in the ocean. Jade wasn’t seriously injured in the fall; although it’s unknown how long he treaded water, Disney Magic provided a fairytale ending and prevented him from sinking 20,000 leagues under the sea.
6 Larry Miller
In 2009, the crew of a pilot boat saw Larry Miller clinging to a buoy in the shipping channel of the Sunshine Skyway. The Carnival Inspiration was returning to the Port of Tampa around 4 a.m. when Miller climbed over a railing to get a better view of a passing boat, slipped, and fell. Miller clung to the buoy for three hours before he was rescued. He was treated for minor injuries at Bayfront Medical Center. What the 46-year old man was doing “boat watching” at four in the morning remains a mystery, but he wouldn’t be the first person to make a bad decision at that hour.
5 Couples Counseling on the Carnival Sensation
Florida, 2009. There was an argument…and then a splash. But this wasn’t a Carl Hiaasen-like caper about a greedy husband pushing his wife off a cruise ship for a Life Insurance policy. According to witnesses, a 34-year old man on the Carnival Sensation argued with his female companion in the stateroom and threatened to jump. “Go ahead,” the woman responded.
And he did. In a misguided example of that’ll show her, fueled, no doubt, by the liquid courage of too many umbrella drinks, the man jumped into the Atlantic just off Port St. Lucie, Florida. He was in the water for over an hour before being rescued by another cruise ship, the Disney Wonder (yes, Disney has a monopoly on fairytale endings).
4 When Nature Calls
In 1996, a drunken 23-year old on a Carnival ship decided to urinate off the side of the boat. He climbed over a 4 ½ foot high railing into a restricted area and fell 76-feet into the harbor. Part of a group celebrating Spring Break, the man wasn’t going to let a little fall ruin his week of collegiate revelry. As the Coast Guard and Carnival launched a full-scale rescue operation with boats and helicopters, the man swam four miles back to San Juan, where he was later found on the beach. Despite being in the water for over 10 hours, he was in good condition. No word on whether or not he rejoined the party.
3 The Grand Princess Plunge
In 2007, a 20-year old male and 20-year old female on Spring Break fell off the balcony of the Grand Princess cruise ship and into the Gulf of Mexico. What led to their terrifying plunge remains hazy; one report said the couple was attempting to reenact the “King of the World” scene from Titanic, while another claimed they were just partying and horsing around. It’s likely they were partying, horsing around, and attempting to reenact the famous scene between Jack and Rose. According to Julie Benson, a spokeswoman for Princess Cruise Lines, the couple was in the water for four hours before the Coast Guard rescued them.
2 Sarah Kirby
In October 2012, Sarah Kirby, 31, was on a five-night Caribbean cruise with her fiancé and a friend when she toppled off the balcony of the Carnival Destiny, hitting a life raft on the way down. If that wasn’t bad enough, her late-night fall was caught on one of the ship’s cameras -a permanent reminder that drinking and cruising can be as dangerous as drinking and driving.
“I remember leaning over the balcony to look at the side of the ship and the next thing I knew I was in the water,” Kirby told ABC News.
What Sarah Kirby might not remember, however, is the number of Long Island Ice Teas she consumed earlier in the night. While Kirby admitted she was drunk when she took her 30-meter plunge, she later sued Carnival for negligence and emotional distress, claiming the ship’s bartender had plied her full of alcohol and the crew didn’t rescue her and provide medical treatment quickly enough. Sarah Kirby spend nearly two hours in the water before being rescued.
1 Tim Sears
“Last thing I remember I was looking for my friend in the casino,” said Tim Sears. In 2003, the 33-year old Michigan man fell off the Carnival Celebration. Sears doesn’t remember falling into the Gulf of Mexico; in fact, he doesn’t remember anything. He has no idea how he ended up in the water.
“I’m coming to in the middle of the water and there’s no ship around and it’s total, total darkness.” Apparently, when Sears woke up in the water, he wasn’t wearing shoes or pants either.
What happened to Tim Sears remains a mystery. He admits to drinking but said he didn’t drink enough to warrant the sort of blackout he experienced. He says he may have leaned over the railing and fell, but he doesn’t rule out the idea that someone put something in his drink. After 17 hours in the ocean, sick from consuming salt water and badly sunburned, Sears was rescued by a foreign cargo ship heading for Texas.