Last Friday morning, a cruise ship carrying over 3,000 passengers reported to the local police department in Hilo, Hawaii that it was missing a guest as it sailed toward that port. The police department in Hilo received the call at 8:40 a.m. on Friday, stating that 59 year old Kenneth Schwalbe had not been seen on the ship since 8:30 p.m. the previous evening. The cruise ship had spent time searching for passenger Schwalbe on the ship after he had not been seen since the previous evening. A detective from the Hilo police department met the cruise ship at the port on Friday morning and reviewed closed circuit surveillance video from a camera on deck 9 which showed, at 4:18 a.m. on Friday, Mr. Schwalbe falling from the ship.

There is no information regarding the circumstances surrounding his situation before he went overboard.

The local news reports failed to mention the name of the cruise ship, which we later determined to be the Emerald Princess, as AIS systems indicate that it was the only cruise ship calling on Hilo on August 11th.

The United States Coast Guard was eventually notified despite the fact that there was a delay of over 4 hours from when the cruise guest fell from the cruise ship. Because the cruise ship was a Carnival-owned vessel operated by Princess Cruises, it lacked an automated man-overboard system (“MOB”) which would have immediately alerted the bridge that a person went over the rails (via a motion detection apparatus) and then track the person in the water using infrared and radar technologies.

MOB systems would have promptly alerted the navigational officer that an emergency situation was developing and would have permitted a fast search for the overboard person in the water. Without such a system which is required by the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA) of 2010, the cruise ship would have first conducted a laborious search for the missing guest on the cruise ship and then a frame-by-frame review of available CCTV images. All the while, the cruise ship would continue on its path to the next port as the chances for a successful rescue diminished by the minute.

When we first reported on this sad case, we received the usual comments by some readers that “you can’t fall from a cruise ship.” These types of comments usually reflect an effort to cast blame on the missing passenger and suggest that the person went overboard intentionally. Cruise lines often comment when their after-the-fact review of CCTV shows someone jumping into the sea. So the fact that the initial report of the overboard is that the CCTV shows him falling (i.s., not jumping) is not insignificant.

Yes, there are some people who decide to end their lives at sea, mostly crew members who become depressed after working long eight month contracts away from their families. But the vast majority of passengers who go overboard are grossly intoxicated. (There is insufficient information regarding this particular case). When the cruise ship eventually reviews CCTV images, the film often shows the person leaning over the railing to vomit before he or she falls overboard. There is usually a delay of several hours before traveling companions observe the person is no longer in their cabin. There is further delay while the ship wastes time searching on the ship while the overboard passenger treads water. Often, like this case, the cruise ship has already arrived at the next port before the ship finally confirms that the person went into the ocean.

One of the first things that the cruise ship security officers do after a passenger goes overboard is to print out and review the passenger’s onboard purchases, which show when the guest purchases alcohol in the ship’s bars and restaurants.The print-out shows exactly when and where the drink was purchased. There is a direct correlation between alcohol sales and guests going overboard. The most booze consumed by a guest who later went overboard was when Royal Caribbean sold 22 drinks to a 21 year old passenger who fell from the Oasis of the Seas in January 2015. Like Carnival Corporation-owned cruise ships, Royal Caribbean has not installed any auto MOB systems in its fleet of ships.

When the young man stumbled out of a ship bar on the Oasis of the Seas after drinking nearly two-dozen drinks in just four hours, he somehow ended up climbing onto a lifeboat where he passed out, only to fall off the lifeboat early in the morning as the Oasis approached Cozumel. Several hours later, the Disney Dream, which was sailing the same route to the Mexican port, observed the young man in the water and miraculously rescued him. (Kudos to the Disney watch keepers on the Disney Dream!)

Coincidentally, only Disney Cruises (and one MSC cruise ship, the MSC Meraviglia) have installed auto-MOB systems in compliance with the CVSSA

There have been 391 people who have gone overboard from cruise ships and ferries in the last 25 years, per cruise expert Dr. Ross Klein. 238 people have gone overboard since the CVSSA went into effect,

Carnival Corporation-owned ships like the Princess Emerald violate U.S. law every time they depart from a U.S. port without the required life-saving MOB system installed. Many cruise fans don’t seem to care, mindlessly arguing that “it’s impossible to fall off a cruise ship.”

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Image credit: By kees torn – flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 commons / wikimedia.