Time to Fix the Balconies?

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

How to help prevent tragedies like the Australian couple lost at sea

Adding this decorative piece to existing railings would make balconies safer

A young couple who had been cruising on Carnival Spirit from Australia went missing from the ship at around 9:30 p.m. on the next to last night of the cruise. No one realized they were missing until 14 hours later when they did not disembark the ship. They had canceled their plans to eat dinner with family and friends onboard.

When the cruise ship security team reviewed the surveillance video they saw that the young lady fell into the sea first and that her boyfriend, a muscular and trained emergency medical technician, ran to the railing and jumped over about 10 seconds later, obviously in an attempt to save her life.

Unfortunately, both were lost, and for reasons that I have covered here before. Falling into the open sea from a cruise ship is almost always a certain death. Why? Because the ocean is so huge and people are so small that they are virtually undetectable even in rare, mirror smooth conditions. Even the tiniest amount of ripple and especially even a hint of white water make it impossible to distinguish a person swimming in the ocean from normal sea conditions.

Why do smart, young people jump or fall from ships (which word you pick is merely a technicality, either way you fall). These two people were in a room alone and they both went over the side. No one saw them so no "man overboard" alarm was sounded and no one threw a life ring or a safety vest.

Here is what the Carnival official statement says (in part):

" As part of our standard protocol, a full ship search was conducted as well as examination of closed circuit video. There is indication from the shipboard video of what transpired. There is no evidence of foul play. However, out of respect for the families, we are not going to publicly disclose the details of what occurred at this time."

This is the usual and proper statement from the cruise line, and I agree with respecting the privacy of the family. But it does beg the question, "what really happens" in such cases? I have thought about this a lot over the years. Carnival already reported that this particular railing was at least two inches higher than required. Furthermore, it is built in such a way that a person cannot get a foothold and easily climb over the railing - it is solid glass all the way to the floor.

That design has eye appeal and some built in safety, but is it safe enough? It will stop you from accidentally falling overboard if you respect it, but I wonder how many people go overboard unintentionally. Perhaps they see the nice flat, smooth railing and think it would be nice to sit up there? One step up from a chair and you are just one slip away from almost certain death. A few years ago there was a case of a woman who tried to climb from her balcony to the next to surprise her friends in the stateroom next door. She slipped and fell to her death.

I also wonder how many people jump on purpose, thinking they are sure to survive, that someone will see them and throw a life ring. I feel that was what the man in this story was thinking - that he didn't need to grab the life vests from the closet. That all he had to do was jump in the water and start shouting for help. I understand the feeling of panic and wanting to take immediate action, although that is not the best choice.

But the sound of the wind and rushing water, the deceptively long distance and the speed of the ship are too much to overcome. It has even been shown that when people are seen falling into the water it is not always possible to save them (some have been saved) because it takes time to find and throw a life ring, to slow down the ship and to launch a smaller boat. If the person is lucky enough to reach the life ring, it still takes time to find them.

So - what is the answer?

At least one idea is to change the railings. I have polled CruiseMates readers and not surprisingly they do not want their cruise ships balconies to look like prison cells. Interestingly, neither New York skyscrapers nor most bridges have safeguards to stop suicides. But for some reason people know better than to sit on their ledges - not always true with ships.

I think we need to find an attractive yet safe design to stop people from going over balconies.

At the very least - you could easily stop the ones who absent-mindedly decide to sit on the railing. All you have to do is add decorative elements that make it impossible to sit there. Keep the glass on the bottom for visual effect but add decorative wrought iron on top of the railing with sharper edges.

Some of my readers have argued that if a person is determined to jump they will go to other parts of the ship. But the truly determined lost souls would at least be forced outside of their staterooms where it is far more likely they would be seen and stopped or saved. It would free up the resources of those who monitor video cameras full time to put more focus on fewer areas of the ship.

Last month there was another story of a girl who went overboard. She admitted that she had leaned over too far. Thankfully she lived to tell the tale, but her roommate was in the bathroom and had no idea what had happened. All she knew was that her friend had disappeared.

The point here is not to stop the people who are determined to jump - it is to stop the people who are merely impulsive and have no concept of the real danger.

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