British tourist rescued after falling overboard

Stay afloat, don’t try to do anything before you get your breathing under control.

 

Article by The Guardian (link)

If you are going to fall from a cruise ship into open water, there are worse places to do so than the Adriatic Sea at the height of summer. The temperature of the stretch of water that separates Italy from the Balkan peninsula is above 20C (68F) in August and minimal wind means that the sea tends to be calm.

Kay Longstaff said she fell from an aft deck on the Venice-bound Norwegian Star around midnight on Saturday and spent 10 hours in the water before she was found and pulled to safety. Had it been another time of year, or a different body of water, the story might have ended very differently. “The two big factors with falling into water are the temperature and the sea state, and they compound each other,” said Prof Mike Tipton, an expert in sea survival at the University of Portsmouth.

The warmest the Adriatic gets between December and April is 15C. At that temperature, a passenger who falls overboard might only last six hours, around half the time it took to rescue Longstaff. In the even colder waters of the Channel, survival times are shorter still. In the winter and spring months the channel barely reaches 10C. It is hard to survive more than two hours without protective clothing.

One reason survival rates are so much better in warmer seas – people can last 25 hours in 20C water – is that it does not trigger the shock response that cold water induces. A plunge into cold water causes people to gasp and hyperventilate uncontrollably. That makes drowning a far greater threat than hypothermia, where the body can no longer maintain its core temperature. “The cold shock response can make people inhale the moment they fall in, and that can be two to three litres of water, more than the lethal dose for drowning,” said Tipton. People who fall from a height can go so far under that they gulp in water before they have time to surface, he added.

Another big factor in Longstaff’s survival was the calmness of the water. In wind and waves, people have to hold their breath, which quickly becomes tiring. “If you’re in a rough, choppy sea, you have to work hard to keep your nose and mouth above the water and you become exhausted and drown. In this case it was quite calm, so you can relax in the water,” Tipton said.

In Britain, drowning claims one adult life every 20 hours and a child’s life every week. Among the adults, it is not uncommon for alcohol to be involved. While tests suggest that drinking does not radically alter the body’s physiological responses to falling into cold water, it does raise the risk of ending up there. “It makes you do stupid things. You’re more likely to end up in cold water if you’ve been drinking,” said Tipton.

Longstaff put her survival in part down to being fit from practising yoga, and singing to herself. Physical fitness and having a positive mental attitude can certainly help, but another advantage is being female, and so having more subcutaneous body fat that helps women to float and stay warm in the water. “It’s really hard to find a female that can’t just float in calm water,” said Tipton.

Weather conditions played another important role in Longstaff’s survival. The crew of the Norwegian Star knew from CCTV footage when she went overboard and so could pinpoint her initial position in the water. The ship failed to find her when it turned back in the dark, but thanks to good visibility in the morning she was spotted by a Croatian patrol ship close to where she fell in.

“If you fall in, float first. Don’t try and do anything before you get your breathing under control,” Tipton said. “The general advice is to stay still, because that’s where you’re most likely to be found.”