The most important ingredient for a successful man overboard (MOB) recovery operation is early detection.
Current IMO procedures calling for the prescribed Williamson turn work well if somebody notices the MOB straight away, but only a few minutes later, the rescue becomes problematic. Locating someone who has fallen off a vessel sailing at 15 knots is difficult. The difficulty multiplies if the vessel is sailing at 25 knots or if the accident happens at night or in bad weather. Adverse conditions such as cold water reduce survival time, heightening the need for rapid intervention.
The number of MOB accidents is increasing as cruise passenger numbers increase, and nowadays, on modern cruise ships, the decks and ship sides are monitored using surveillance cameras. However, equipping cruise ships with advanced detection and alert systems could dramatically decrease the potential for crew or passengers to be lost at sea.
There are few accurate statistics on incident numbers. Several publications refer to an average of 1,000 dead worldwide. The most accurate list by far is Professor Ross Klein's statistics on the Cruise Junkie website showing that an average of 20 people a year go overboard from American cruise ships. Available statistics show that in up to 75 percent of such cases, the mariner or passenger overboard dies.
IMO and ILO safety procedures currently cover emergency planning including risk assessments, crew training and required equipment and rescue boats, through SOLAS and the ISM Code. These procedures do not cover any systems or equipment needed to be on board to detect and discover MOB at the moment of falling, not even the latest amendments to SOLAS Chapter III. However, there are some local rules for cruise ships and fishing boats, such as U.S. and French rules for MOB detection.
There is some primitive detection and location equipment on the market, where the main theory depends on the AIS receiver in the ship’s bridge and a transmitter attached to the crew members life jacket, which gives an audio-visual alarm at the ship’s bridge at the moment of falling, but this equipment is not approved or mandatory under IMO regulations.
On cargo ships, mariners’ life jackets are increasingly equipped with sophisticated location systems that actively transmit their location, but on passenger ships, the problem is more complicated, because passengers do not wear life jackets or detection systems.
The industry needs an integrated high technology system to detect, monitor and track a MOB at the moment of falling, even if the victim was not sighted by another person. This technology needs to offer multi-sensor detection and object classification and would include long-range infrared cameras, a sophisticated alarm system and a potential link to ECDIS systems. Such a system would improve the effectiveness of search and rescue operations, reduce the search effort and ultimately boost the safety of life at sea.
Captain Abdelkhalik Kamal Eldin Soliman Selmy is a Lecturer at the Arab Academy for Science and Technology & Maritime Transport.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.