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Suicide, Even at Sea, Isn’t Painless

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This is not a fun cruise article, but we feel the need to address a topic too often misrepresented by the public and the mainstream media. Suicide is never painless, even at sea, but it still happens and we want to explore why.

We hope this article will ameliorate media reports about people “falling” from cruise ships – such events are almost always intentional overboards. It will also shed some light on how and why people go overboard from ships, and if we can prevent this even once that is a very good thing.

Since 12 million Americans vacation on cruise ships every year, a certain number of deaths are to be expected. Death is a fact of life, but death on cruise ships is often treated in ways that appear mysterious to those of us familiar with the industry. From web sites created to defame the cruise industry to news stories written by inexperienced reporters, the discussion of death or missing persons on cruise ships is often misleading, sensationalized or just plain wrong. It is as if the worst possible scenario is always represented first, with the truth coming out later with far less fanfare.

Let’s take a look at death at sea and a get a true picture of what is happening.

Natural Death at Sea

Natural death happens on cruise ships all the time, which is understandable considering that many elderly people continue to cruise for as long as they can get onboard. Many luxury cruise ships carry coffins onboard, and even have what they refer to as a “morgue” which is really just a very cold room.

A friend of mine traveling on a cruise ship heard about an elderly passenger who died in her sleep. Someone remarked that it was sad.

“She was 96 years old and died in her sleep on a cruise ship. I can only pray my death is as sad as hers,” my friend replied.

It sounds funny, but it is true. Everything about this passing says it was almost as good as death can be. It was not painful, she lived a long and prosperous life, and chances are someone inherited her legacy and wealth.

Unnatural Deaths at Sea

Then there is the sadder category of premature deaths at sea. The very rare truly accidental deaths are too random for discussion here. Homicide on cruise ships is extremely rare – only a few cases have ever been proven or even investigated. Murder is suspected in only a small handful of cases in all of cruise history. Considering that hundreds of millions of Americans have taken cruises that is a very good statistic.

Suicide at Sea

What I really want to explore is the sad truth about self-inflicted death at sea, whether on purpose or the result of careless disregard for the safety structures in place. These are the most common causes of unnatural deaths at sea.

There are a handful of suicides at sea almost every year and this is not the fault of the cruise industry, but just a matter of a few predisposed individuals taking advantage of the circumstances. But there are too many cases where these suicides appear to be somewhat impulsive, and that really concerns me.

It isn’t the cruise or the ship that enables the suicide – it is the water surrounding ship. That may sound a bit haughty, but I don’t mean it that way. I am very serious about the following point…

The first time I boarded a cruise ship, I was in awe of the beauty and power of the open sea and the marvel of human engineering that enabled me to traverse and even thrive in one of the world’s least hospitable environments, the open ocean, which covers three-fifths of our planet.

I was filled with a rare combination of admiration and fear as any mortal faced with something so mighty feels. I instinctively knew my life would end if I yielded all self-control and put myself overboard.

If you have already been on a ship you already know what mean. There are certain sights that evoke this same terrible admiration in us; looking over the edge of the Grand Canyon, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge or going to the observation platform on the Empire State Building. I believe it is a normal human reaction to look at these sights and wonder what it would be like to fall.

These are places where people who have severe, possibly uncontrollable thoughts of suicide should never go. If anyone I knew had attempted suicide in the last two years and he told me he was considering his first cruise, I would counsel him against it.

Studies of suicide have proven one significant fact that helps explain why cruise ships have been involved in suicides. The studies say that the availability of a method to commit suicide increases the incidence of suicide by five times. The image of the open sea is a very compelling picture to someone with suicidal thoughts. And it only takes a split second to take the irreversible action of putting one’s self overboard.

They took the balconies away from Las Vegas hotels for this reason — but keep in mind there is a lot of sadness in many Las Vegas visitors afflicted by chronic gambling and other problems. We often make jokes about “cruise addiction,” but most cruisers are well adjusted and mentally stable. So cruise ships still have balconies.

But every year a handful of suicide attempts occur on cruise ships. One of the seemingly well-planned ones not long ago involved an elderly Asian couple, the man with a chronic disease, who were last seen entering their balcony stateroom, and their cabin door was locked from the inside.

I think we know what happened, but they left no evidence. One school of thought says that drowning in the deep blue sea is a fairly painless way to go, but other people say the opposite. I don’t care to find out which is right.

The suicide attempts that are not well planned happen during or after a night of alcohol abuse, when impulsive and regrettable things may have occurred. In some cases, the warning signs are recognized too late — e.g., previous suicide attempts on land, or whispers of what is about to happen to other cruise guests. Take these warning signs seriously.

Even more sadly, young people — even teenagers — have made many of these hastily conceived suicide attempts. I cannot explain why suicidal thoughts occur; I only ask readers to be aware that they do.

If you are young and having thoughts of suicide, I just want to say that it is NEVER the answer. Living well is the answer. You have a long life ahead of you, and the things that seem so tragically important now will change.

Not Taking the Sea Seriously

This is a related but different concern. It appears that some young people who jump from ships may believe they can survive. They think they will only sink a few feet, feel the churning of the waves, and swim back to the surface to be rescued quickly. These people sometimes jump in front of witnesses. By the same token, some people have put themselves in precarious positions outside the safety railings – which are more than adequate if properly respected – and then fallen. They would not have done so if they didn’t think a fall from a ship is survivable. This is a bad mistake.

In truth, the water’s surface tension is hard enough to break your neck or back if you don’t land correctly. As for swimming to safety, even if you can see land on the horizon it could be 50 miles away; there is absolutely no way to judge distances in the open sea.

If you do survive the fall the chance that you will be seen and rescued in the open ocean is very, very small. Most people who go overboard are never found. Even the slightest white water conditions in otherwise smooth seas make it virtually impossible to see you in the open ocean no matter how much you wiggle and wave. With normal three to five foot waves you can run out of energy and sink within a few hours.

Most importantly, suicide never solves anything and it leaves behind a heartbreak that never ends. People commit suicide for different reasons, and some victims are believed to have a point they want to make with a “meaningful death.”

Some of the best stories in fiction portray the concept of a “meaningful death,” but suicide is a very real act – not an act of fiction. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please seek help from a health professional. If a loved one of yours has ever attempted suicide, especially recently, I would not recommend taking them on a cruise.

Finally – if you know anyone who has committed suicide at sea I am very, very sorry, and I hope that you agree with me that this article needed to be written. This article will not remain on our front page for long, but it will found by people who google “cruise ship suicide.” Hopefully, if even one death is prevented this will have been more than worth writing.

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Comment from gharkness
Time May 28, 2009 at 1:06 pm

One of the things you have not mentioned is the very real violence the various propellers and screws that lurk below the surface will do to the perhaps unsuspecting jumper.

Depressing article in a way, but every word of it needs to be said and heard. Thank you.

Comment from Paul Motter
Time May 28, 2009 at 1:32 pm

Thank you for the comment. Of course damage from propellars is a real possibility.

I didn’t want to make the article too long, but I really feel the media coverage of people “falling” from cruise ships is a disservice to the people who have died jumping (or falling because they bypassed the safety apparatus) from cruise ships.

Many of those, especially the younger ones, may have actually thought they would survive. IF the media got eyewitness statements like “after we fell we never saw him again” or “we threw liferafts, but he couldn’t reach them” then people thinking about these stunts, even in the back of their mind, would think twice.

In suicide there are so many failed attempts that you know there is always the element that the person wants a chance of failing. I just wanted people to know that with cruise ships that chance is not nearly as high as they may think it is.

Comment from Todd De Haven
Time May 28, 2009 at 6:45 pm

Excellent article Paul. A macabre subject to be sure, but one that has long needed to be addressed.

You have done so successfully with obvious sincerity and understanding. You are to be commended

Comment from Paul Motter
Time May 29, 2009 at 11:41 am

Just an FYI: the media covering the most recent overboard as a “man missing” was supposedly respecting the parent’s right to privacy. I understand the right to privacy, but what about the cruise bashing websites? I just checked one and they still have this article up as “man missing from cruise ship” Follow-up articles have been published in the mainstream media verifying witnesses saw him jump over the railing.

This is obvious cruise industry bashing from people who really don’t know anything about cruise ships but have made slandering their reputation a way of life. I just think it is sad the mainstream media continues to find joy in reporting wholly inaccurate bad news about cruise ships just because it has more sizzle that way.

Comment from Dave Beers
Time May 30, 2009 at 6:12 pm

The most infamous cruise bashing website now says the person “who fell overboard (some sources say he jumped)”. I’ve entertained thoughts of starting a website about “everything that can go wrong on a land vacation”, but I’ve no doubt I’d be overwhelmed with stories of thefts, assaults, robberies, bad rooms and food, etc., and I’d need a staff of at least 100 to keep up with it.

Comment from Debbie Brooks
Time June 9, 2009 at 11:29 am

A sad, but informative article written with
compassion. Thank you Paul~!

Comment from Paul Motter
Time June 21, 2009 at 7:48 am

Another month of two people jumping, and one actually falling after climbing up on a railing (He was rescued clinging to a bouy).

Innocent people had their cruise ruined as the ships turned around and searched for the missing people. One Carnival ship missed two ports and arrived at its one port 13 hours late – wreaking havoc with some people’s scheduled tours and probably arriving at night. The whole mood on the ship was dampered for everyone as they witnessed a search for a missing person for some 12 hours.

It is selfish to the people you don’t know to jump from a cruise ship, but if you were concerned about not being selfish you probably wouldn’t commit suicide – assuming you have a family and people who depend upon you.

Suicidal thoughts are very delusional. They are accompanied by deep sadness and a sense of purposelessness. People who commit suicide usually believe it will somehow make the lives of their remaining family better. It doesn’t. It makes it far worse.

If you want to make your life and the lives of people around you better, live a life of service to other people. Nothing will make you feel better faster than helping other people and making their lives better. Your life will improve as well.

Comment from Mike
Time September 27, 2009 at 1:25 am

Hi Paul

Just one point, in your original article you state cruisng is very much for “couples and families”, well I have to disagree I am single and regularly cruise on my own, both with smaller high end lines and mass market lines. It is an ideal vacation for singles, I am only 40 and never fail to meet some great people and have a good time. Not all singles become manic depressives in the company of couples !

Mike – Durban, South Africa

Comment from Barbara Welt
Time March 29, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Terribly sad and most likely avoidable but impulsive acts often have terrible consequences. I just wonder, though, why there is no evidence of her going overboard. I was on a RCCL cruise in April when a crew member jumped overboard 200 miles out to sea and the security cameras caught all of it and the ship was able to begin a search immediately. Sadly he was never found. But as I understand it, security cameras are EVERYWHERE on ships now so why no sign of her at all? Very odd.

Comment from Laurie
Time March 29, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Paul, i cannot THANK U ENOUGH for this compassionate article.

I’m a 27 yrs old girl that has had very difficult times of suicidal thoughts and even attempts.

It’s been a year since the last big depression and everything seems fine. My boyfriend and I were planning to go on vacation and i was actually going to suggest him going on cruise.

I’ve never thought on suicide in a Cruise before, but now that i imagine how yould i feel faced to the magestic deep blue sea, in the middle of the night… it would be overwealming…

Like, i’m not saying cruises shouldn’t be taken, but if you know your debilities, better safe than sorry.

Thank you very much being very informative, yet not mocking of people who suffer from depression.

You might have just saved my life!

Comment from Paul Motter
Time March 29, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Irf I saved a life I am very happy. About five to ten people go missing on ship per year. The sight of the sea is overwhelming. I hope you get to cruise someday.

Comment from Mary
Time April 1, 2011 at 8:19 pm

This is a much needed article on both sea and land. There have been two teen suicides and one attempted within the past six weeks in my grandchildren’s schools in Texas.

So sad, so chilling, so final, and so devastating to those left behind. My prayers and sympathy for all those affected.

Comment from ALPHABOY
Time September 21, 2012 at 3:34 am

Such a bloody deceiver that you are!!!
Who are you to tell anyone, no matter how young, he’s got a ‘long life’ ahead?
Are you some clairvoyant?
& again, what if that ‘long life’ is mostly
misery? Who are you to guarantee that
‘the things that seem so tragically
important now will change’?
Easy for you to say, who’s got mostly
everything in life.
You actually said the key thing yourself:
That’s right … living well.
If living well has proved beyond reach
after trying time & time again, then death
is the answer

Comment from Paul Motter
Time October 16, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Alphaboy.. if you are at the point where death seems plausible as the answer then please talk to someone about what you are feeling.

My personal experience is that people with problems often think their problems are unique and that no one else would understand what they are experiencing, but in fact for almost any feeling or problem you may experience there is probably someone close to you who understands exactly what you are feeling.

The power of prayer and faith in God can do a great deal to help you get through the the tough times – and if you cannot pray for answers then just pray for the patience you get you through the tough times.

I have seen people’s lives change drastically overnight, and when bad things happen it is okay to be sad, but I urge everyone to believe that suicide is not an answer – the answer is loving yourself as you would love another person. You deserve love – give yourself the love you deserve.

Comment from Gina
Time March 5, 2015 at 1:43 am

On another website I saw that more than a few have hung themselves in their cabins. That happens a lot in hotels too though, I think another factor is that people often don’t want to do this sort of thing where they live and where there families live.

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