The ‘freak wave’ that smashed into the Louis Majesty (see video below) on her voyage from Spain was not as much of an anomaly as the cruise industry would have you believe. Weather bouys in the are recorded wave heights over 20 feet and wind speeds exceeding 40 mph. When the waves hit the boat, they burst the windows in the dining area killing two passengers and injuring more.
It could happen to you. Since 1980, there have been 21 passenger ships sunk according to this cruise ship law site. And, while many of those sinkings did not result in fatalities, it’s best to be prepared so you don’t have a DiCaprio-esque situation on your frigid, shivering hands.
Know your escape plan
When you first board your inevitably-doomed, waterborne, enormous coffin, you’ll want to take a look around and find the fire doors, the life boats, and definitely study the little map of evacuation procedures which cruise ships are required by law to display. Of course, you’ll want to find the second closest lifeboat and escape door to you because of the next step in your plan…
During a maritime disaster (or any disaster, really) 70% of the crowd involved is going to panic, 15% is going to behave irrationally, and 15% is going to make calculated, rational decisions. If you can master your reaction and keep yourself in the ‘top’ 15%, you’ve taken a very large step to avoiding panicked crowds and, possibly, injury or death. It’s easy to say remain calm, but one thing you can do is focus on your breathing. Practice ‘mindful breathing’ in which you are actively thinking about breathing in and actively thinking about breathing out. Your frontal cortex can only contain so much information at one time, and this technique can force the fear from your mind.
If you’re the Captain (salute), you better damn well be on the horn radioing for help. If you’re not, though, you better be scouring the ship for the following need-to-have items for if/when you are marooned on an island: flashlights, flares, fresh water, food rations, mirror for signaling, sunscreen, batteries, radio, matches, and first-aid kit. With this in hand, make your way toward a safe area (probably life boats).
Hit the life boats
After the debacle on the Titanic, cruise ships are now required by law to carry with them enough lifeboats for more than the number of passengers they carry. Familiarize yourself with their positions on the ship upon your boarding. The most important thing for you to do in this instance is to not push, shove, panic or cut in line. Learn yourself a lesson from the Saint-Malo ferry. When 300 of its passengers were being evacuated, many of them broke limbs and hips in the rush to get in the lifeboats. And that was just a ferry.
Get away from the ship
Mythbusters busted the myth that a sinking cruise ship will suck any stragglers along in its wake, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary. And, in fact, the Mythbusters found that there was some downward drag produced. Think of a train passing by you and the subtle pull you feel towards it because of displaced air. The same phenomenon happens in this case. Add to that any escaping bubbles from the cruise ship will actually decrease your buoyancy (you can’t swim in roiling white water, and neither can you breathe).
Once you’re in a lifeboat, the madness has just begun. The most dangerous thing about being in a lifeboat is not sharks, it’s the psychological duress you suffer by looking 360 degrees around yourself and seeing only the Big Blue. This makes many stranded passengers forget about the essentials of survival: stay hydrated, stay fed, and stay calm. Use clothing to cover your face and neck to stay out of the sun. Soak it in the ocean to remain cool, but don’t drink ocean water. Many lifeboats include “water ration” pouches and water filter kits as well.