How to survive if you fall off a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean, according to a survival expert

How to survive if you fall off a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean, according to a survival expert

  • James Michael Grimes survived nearly 20 hours in the open sea after falling overboard from a cruise ship.
  • An expert told Insider the main concerns of someone adrift in the ocean and how to deal with them.
  • Not panicking, trying to find floating objects and giving a signal can help you survive.

If you fall off a cruise ship in the middle of the night and no one knows about it, there are things you can do to increase your chances of surviving and being found, according to a survival expert.

James Michael Grimes found himself in this exact situation on Thanksgiving Day after going overboard on the Carnival Valor cruise ship the night before. The 28-year-old told ABC’s “Good Morning America” ​​he didn’t remember falling, only waking up somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico with no boat in sight.

Grimes described the next 20 hours as a fight for his life spent walking on water while fending off jellyfish and at least one unidentified finned creature. He rode through the night and into the next day, until night returned, and tried to eat floating objects, including a piece of bamboo.

He was eventually spotted by the crew aboard the bulk carrier Crinis and was eventually rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter.

US Coast Guard Lt. Seth Gross, who oversees search and rescue missions in the greater Louisiana Gulf Coast region, told Insider that a “whole bunch of factors” had to work “perfectly.” for Grimes to survive the ordeal: “To survive the sinking, to be able to stay afloat, that no shark ended up locating him, and then this motorboat happened to be in just the right position .”

But even if luck, tenacity and Coast Guard preparedness were key factors, there are practical things a person who falls into the open sea can do to increase their chances of survival, according to expert Cat Bigney. in survival. who has consulted for Bear Grylls and National Geographic.

don’t panic

There are many things that work against a person who goes too far. First, they must avoid injury during the fall and when they hit the water. Calling for help or finding help on the open sea is virtually impossible. There could be scorching sun, potentially hungry predators, and choppy water. Hypothermia and dehydration are also major risks.

“All of these factors make it very difficult for people to survive if they’re adrift,” Bigney, who taught at Boulder Outdoor Survival School for decades, told Insider.

Falling overboard on a cruise ship is extremely rare, but the vast majority of those who do are never rescued. Between 2009 and 2019, there were 212 incidents at sea on cruise ships, according to data compiled by the Cruise Lines International Association. Only 48 of these people were rescued.

But the first thing a person in an overstretched situation should remember? Don’t panic.

“When people enter a body of water, they usually damage their lungs immediately because they’re gasping,” Bigney explained. “We have such a panicky instinct to get some air, and when people do, they bring water to their lungs.”

Keeping your cool in life-or-death situations is key, because panic is “the biggest thing that will kill you in a survival situation,” according to Bigney.

Carnival Valor ship in Grand Cayman

Carnival Valor, pictured here in 2010.

(AP Photo/J Pat Map

Find anything that floats

Once you’re in open water, your next priority is to stay above the surface. Some people may have a natural edge and float more easily, depending on their body composition, including body fat percentage and muscle mass.

Although Grimes was in the water for about 20 hours, it’s unlikely he walked the whole time, according to Bigney. A combination of floating, walking and swimming would be ideal, although it would still be exhausting, especially in rough water. But hovering periodically is still much more doable than constantly.

There are also ways to make floating easier. For example, Grimes said he took off all his clothes, in order to make himself more dynamic.

“Even a small floating device will help – something you can use with your arms around or your neck just to help relieve some of the stress if you’re not a good swimmer or have trouble staying afloat. ” said Bigney.

Grimes had said he tried chewing bamboo, which Bigney says is extremely buoyant. Even collecting small pieces of bamboo or driftwood could help a person stay afloat, she said. Ideally, you could collect enough to make a pile or raft that you could ride above and out of the water, which would also make you safer from any potential predators.

Water would be a problem, food not so much

It is unlikely that Grimes could have obtained significant energy from chewing bamboo, but food would not be a major concern during the time he was at sea.

“Our bodies are perfectly evolutionary adapted to have this ability to fast for a long period of time, so he should have been fine food-wise,” Bigney said, adding that “psychologically” it did. may have helped, but “physiologically”. “His body was probably fine without eating.

Calories are needed to regulate core body temperature, but she said most bodies would be able to do this for a few days with stores including fat and liver. Grimes was treated for hypothermia after being rescued as the 70 degree water temperature was significantly colder than baseline human body temperature, but moving and swimming for most of the time he was stranded – as well as factors like what he had recently eaten and his body fat content – may have helped him avoid the worst.

Dehydration would be a much bigger immediate concern than food, according to Bigney.

“You don’t want to drink salt water,” she said, adding that you would want to try and conserve the water you already had. One way to do this would be to try using your clothes to create shelter from the sun, such as wrapping them over your head.

Garbage floating on the surface of the sea

Garbage floating on the surface of the sea can be used to emit a signal.

Ulrike Schmitt-Hartmann/Getty Images

Signal any way you can, including trash

Ultimately, if you fall off a cruise ship several miles from shore, it’s a waiting game for rescue, and giving a signal is one way to improve your chances of being found.

“There is unfortunately a lot of trash in our great oceans,” Bigney said, adding that collecting floating trash in a large pile could potentially form a signal that could be spotted by rescuers.

When an overboard situation is reported, the US Coast Guard uses a program to estimate where a floating object might be, Gross told Insider. The optimal search and rescue planning system takes into account the person’s weight, clothing, body fat percentage and whether or not they have a flotation device, as well as weather and ocean conditions.

For Grimes, the system returned more than 7,000 square nautical miles of ocean where he could be, roughly the size of Massachusetts — so anything you can do to increase the chances of being spotted can help.

“At the end of the day, it’s a pretty grim situation, but people survived,” Bigney said, adding, “And people die sometimes.”

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