The US Coast Guard doesn’t check cruise ships for man-overboard technology that’s been legally required for over 10 years

  • An average of 19 people go overboard on cruise ships every year, industry data has found.
  • Since 2010, cruise ships have been required to install technology to help prevent overboard deaths.
  • But the US Coast Guard isn’t enforcing the requirements or inspecting ships for the technology. 

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Ronnie Peale Jr., a 35-year-old from a small town in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, took his first cruise in May 2023 to celebrate his partner’s birthday.

On the fifth day of the cruise, Peale went missing.

“By one o’clock I had that gut-wrenching feeling in my stomach,” his mother, Linda Peale, told Insider. “He always called me twice a day to check on his dogs.”

He didn’t call.”

Security footage reviewed by Carnival showed Peale “leaned over the railing of his stateroom balcony and dropped into the water at approximately 4:10 a.m.,” a spokesperson for the cruise line said.

At 6:36 p.m. — more than 12 hours after Peale fell overboard — Carnival contacted the Coast Guard, according to the agency. For 60 hours, Coast Guard responders searched 5,171 square miles, an area slightly larger than the state of Connecticut, but did not find his body.

Peale is presumed dead, according to a letter sent to his mother by the Coast Guard, a copy of which was viewed by Insider.

“His 9 tomato plants have ripened in the garden. I will make sauce for the family. His plans for a rebuild the sink for our farmhouse will stay in boxes in the garage,” Linda Peale wrote of her son, pictured here as a teenager holding his nephew.

Courtesy of Linda Peale

While man-overboard incidents are rare, they are a leading cause of death for passengers on cruise ships, according to research conducted by Travis Heggie, a professor at Bowling Green State University who specializes in health and safety risks in the tourism industry.

On average, 19 people go overboard on cruise ships every year — of those, about four people are successfully rescued, a 2020 study commissioned by the industry trade group Cruise Lines International Association found.

Less than two months after Peale fell overboard, 30-year-old Jaylen Hill also went overboard a Carnival cruise ship. Hill was last seen at 8 a.m. on Sunday, July 23. The cruise line alerted the Coast Guard at 6:30 p.m. that night, Eric Rodriguez, a petty officer third class, told Insider at the time.

In the past month, two more cruise passengers have gone overboard, from Royal Caribbean’s Spectrum of the Seas and Princess Cruises’ Emerald Princess. None of the passengers were found.

Search patterns show the 5,171 square miles Coast Guard responders searched for Ronnie Peale Jr., who fell overboard 186 miles east of Jacksonville, Florida.

U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Joe Perez

Locating a missing person among the sprawling labyrinth of bars, restaurants, entertainment venues, pools, and staterooms that make up these floating cities can be frustrating and time-consuming, especially considering the complications of texting and calling at sea.

Even if someone survives the steep fall and avoids the ship’s massive propeller or swirling wake, hypothermia can set in within minutes. Unmonitored security footage and inconsistent safety protocols make the chances of survival even more slim.

Experts say the large gaps of time between a person going overboard and the initiation of rescue missions are one of the main reasons why man overboard incidents are so deadly. The longer someone is alone in the open ocean, the lower the chance of recovery, Ross Klein, a cruise industry researcher who has served as an expert witness before Congress, told The Washington Post earlier this year.

“Overboard situations are obviously upsetting events for many — and although they are rare, with the likelihood of an incident at less than 0.000001% — we take our responsibility to provide a safe environment for guests and crew very seriously,” a spokesperson for Carnival Corporation said, adding that “it is virtually impossible to fall off a cruise ship without a purposeful action to climb up and over safety rails,” which must be at least 42 inches high.

Legislation without regulation

The US Coast Guard does not check for man-overboard image capture or detection technology during compliance inspections of cruise ships.

(Photo by Paul McConnell/U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

To help prevent overboard fatalities, Congress in 2010 required cruise ships to integrate technology “that can be used for capturing images of passengers or detecting passengers who have fallen overboard, to the extent that such technology is available,” as part of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, or CVSSA.

The Coast Guard interprets the statute to mean cruise ships have the option to choose between image-capture systems — like CCTV security cameras — or detection systems, which use technology like thermal cameras and radar to alert crew of someone falling overboard in real time, a spokesperson for the agency told Insider. This gives cruise companies the flexibility to decide which type of technology they use.

But the law’s vague language opens it up to a second interpretation, which some experts say was the original intent of Congress: that cruise ships are allowed to use image capture technology like CCTV cameras to fulfill the CVSSA until reliable man overboard detection technology becomes available.

But the Coast Guard, the agency tasked with ensuring cruise ships comply with the law, does not enforce either requirement because the rulemaking process it first began eight years ago is not yet finished, a Coast Guard spokesperson told Insider. That means for the 10-plus years the CVSSA has been law, the Coast Guard hasn’t inspected cruise ships for any MOB technology, cameras or otherwise, the spokesperson confirmed.

Nor does the agency regulate or set standards for the technology cruise ships should use to detect passengers who have fallen overboard, the spokesperson said. However, the Coast Guard does examine cruise ships to ensure they “have adequate procedures in place to recover a man overboard in a satisfactory manner,” they added.

“I think many of us don’t realize that about any law,” Jamie Barnett, the president of the International Cruise Victims Association, told Insider. “It doesn’t just get passed and then happen — it takes oversight. It takes people paying attention to make sure that it happens.”

Most cruise ships rely on security cameras to spot people who’ve gone overboard

All Cruise Line International Association members comply with the requirements in the CVSSA, with most ships opting for technology that is capable of capturing images of people falling overboard, a CLIA spokesperson told Insider.

But victims’ advocates say security cameras on their own aren’t an effective way to prevent man-overboard fatalities because they are not constantly monitored. And since cameras don’t always capture every area of the ship, sometimes there’s no footage at all.

After 29-year-old James Michael Grimes went overboard a Carnival cruise ship in November 2022, his stepsister was informed by a security officer that they had footage of Grimes leaving the bar, but not of him going overboard, she told USA Today. A Carnival spokesperson told the outlet at the time that cameras “may not have 100% visibility” on some areas of its ships.

When a Royal Caribbean crew member went overboard the Vision of the Seas in 2017, a Bahamian marine safety investigation determined a “clear view of crewmember jumping overboard was not detected as the area was not covered by CCTV (blind area).”

In a statement shared with Insider, CLIA emphasized that safety and security are a top priority for the industry.

“All cruise lines use a variety of measures to maintain a safe environment on board cruise ships, including physical barriers around the periphery of external decks and balconies, video surveillance systems in public areas, and trained crew members who can respond quickly to an unsafe situation or emergency,” the spokesperson said.

Automatic detection systems are still being tested to meet international standards

In order for a man-overboard detection system to comply with the ISO, it must have a 95% detection success rate and trigger no more than one false alarm per day. Tests are performed using dummies like the one pictured here.

Courtesy of MARSS

The cruise industry, which says it’s been testing man-overboard, or MOB, detection systems since as early as 2006, says that technology that senses someone going overboard and alerts crew members in real time is not yet reliable in marine environments nor widely commercially available.

In 2017, the Coast Guard said three providers had demonstrated “initial feasibility,” but it recommended waiting to pass further regulations until an international standard was developed so as to not “add burden to industry and business processes.”

Since then, the International Standardization Organization has developed technical requirements for systems to detect a person who has gone overboard from a ship. The standards, created with input from the Coast Guard and cruise industry, were published in 2020, but a Coast Guard spokesperson said it’s not aware of any products that currently meet them.

Marss, a global-technology company, said it has created a product, called MOBtronic, that is on track to meet international standards by the beginning of 2024. The system completed 120 tests with a 100% success rate, the company said, and would cost about $500,000 per ship to install.

Mike Collier, a program lead for MOBtronic, said the technology is already installed on one major cruise line’s entire fleet, though he declined to specify which.

CLIA said once certified detection systems are available, it may take several years to see a significant uptake in the new technology due to limited shipyard and product availability.

A spokesperson for Carnival Corporation said that “despite the claims by manufacturers and their salespeople, these systems are still unreliable, as was the case when our company piloted some of the proposed technologies.” MOB-detection technology does not prevent someone from climbing over the safety rails or jumping off, Carnival added.

After eight years of regulatory limbo, Congress wants answers from the Coast Guard

MOBtronic has passed phase 1 and phase 2 testing required to meet the ISO standard and expects to complete the final phase by the beginning of 2024.

Courtesy of MARSS

After eight years of regulatory limbo, lawmakers want to know when the Coast Guard will enforce the man overboard technology requirements of the CVSSA and if it will require detection systems on every ship.

In May, four members of Congress, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, sent a letter to the Coast Guard requesting information about the current use of man-overboard technology on cruise ships.

In response, the Coast Guard said it began the rulemaking process that would allow the agency to enforce the requirements back in 2015, but the rule was never finalized because of public comments that “questioned whether man-overboard detection technology was sufficiently reliable or available.”

Collier, who was Carnival Corporation’s man-overboard-detection expert prior to his role at MOBtronic, said the lack of concrete regulation from the Coast Guard is the reason cruise lines haven’t fully committed to installing the technology.

“While there remains no clarity from the regulators, cruise lines will revert to making investment decisions based primarily on revenue generation,” he said.

A Coast Guard spokesperson said there are no regulations preventing cruise lines from installing MOB detection systems on their vessels.

The Coast Guard is scheduled to introduce a revised version of the 2015 proposed rule in June 2024, which would clarify definitions, update existing regulations, and create performance standards for implementing the CVSSA.

“The Coast Guard is considering the best approach to address this issue as quickly as practicable,” a spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Blumenthal has introduced new legislation that he said would ease some of the original act’s opacity by requiring cruise ships to install technology that can both capture images of and detect a passenger going overboard, a change CLIA said would be “pre-mature.”

“Congress intended the Coast Guard to have — and use — the power to safeguard passengers more effectively by requiring technology that detects people going overboard in real time,” he said in a statement shared with Insider. “Legislation would make this authority absolutely clear — and make Coast Guard regulations immune from any future attempts to weaken them.”

Loved ones navigate the murky waters of a death at sea

“He trekked the mountain behind our house. The land was his comfort zone, fishing, hiking, climbing trees, racing with his dogs Mylo and Rocky,” Linda Peale wrote of her son.

Courtesy of Linda Peale

Jennilyn Blosser, Peale’s partner, said the most frustrating part about the process was how long it took for Carnival to locate the video footage and confirm that Peale had fallen overboard.

Blosser said her family told customer service around 2 p.m. on Monday, May 29, that they were unable to locate Peale. The employee then checked the group’s bar tab and said Peale had recently ordered a drink on deck 10, she said, which led the family to believe he was still on the ship. Blosser said she later found out her cousin ordered the drink, not Peale.

Around 5 p.m., Blosser said she reported Peale missing to customer service a second time after he didn’t show up to dinner. Carnival then conducted an onboard search and announced his name over the ship’s loudspeaker, she said. The cruise line contacted the Coast Guard at 6:36 p.m.

“I just don’t know why it took so long for them to be able to figure it out,” she told Insider.

A Carnival spokesperson said the company’s internal investigation “gives a different set of facts and sequence of events,” but declined to give details citing “respect for his family.”

Finding answers didn’t get any easier after the Coast Guard suspended its search for Peale, his mother said, adding that the cruise line agreed to show her and her husband the ship’s security footage of their son after she hired a lawyer.

When she emailed the Coast Guard questions about the details of the incident, such as what time Carnival viewed the security footage and the condition of the water when Peale fell, a Coast Guard attorney said the only way he could share the requested information was if she submitted a Freedom of Information Act request, according to emails viewed by Insider.

Filing a claim against a cruise line is one of the only ways for family members to obtain information about overboard incidents, Barnett of the ICVA said, adding that some lawyers won’t take cases involving cruise ship fatalities because the complexities of maritime law make successful outcomes so rare.

For example, if a cruise passenger dies beyond three nautical miles of US, legal action and compensation is limited by the Death on the High Seas Act, or DOHSA, a federal law enacted in 1920 that allows only financially dependent relatives of the deceased to file a wrongful-death claim for monetary losses. DOHSA does not allow survivors to recover damages for pain and suffering or mental anguish, unlike other wrongful-death cases.

As for the Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue missions for cruise passengers who go overboard, American taxpayers are the ones footing the bill, not cruise lines.

“There’s no financial consequence when someone goes overboard to the cruise line,” Jim Walker, a maritime lawyer who specializes in the cruise industry, told Insider. “So there’s not really an incentive that forces them to install the system.”

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Hannah Towey