What do I do if I fall overboard?

When You're the Person Overboard

The survival-float, which is kind of silly to perform in a swimming pool.
The survival-float, which is kind of silly to perform in a swimming pool.
LaCoppola-Meier/Getty Images

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 them to help to retain 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:

  • 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.

Related­ HowStuffWorks Articles

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
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  • Fosha, Rebecca. "How To Survive a Cold Night at Sea." navy.mil. June 2003. http://safetycenter.navy.mil/media/fathom/issues/AprJun03/howtosurvive.htm