Suicide, Even at Sea, Isn’t Painless
Written by: Paul Motter
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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