Cruise ships rescue: How to survive for 10 hours in the water

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Media caption‘I am very lucky to be alive’

A British woman has survived for 10 hours in the sea off the coast of Croatia after falling from the back of a cruise ship.

The 46-year-old was alone and 60 miles from shore when she was rescued and taken to hospital. Details of her remarkable survival are still emerging – but what could help you stay alive in a similar situation?

Water temperature

Professor Mike Tipton, an expert on surviving extreme environments, says: “There were lots of things that happened that were lucky.

“The key to her survival really was the temperature and the second aspect was that the water was calm.

“The water temperature would have been about 28-29C which is a little bit warmer than a swimming pool.”

A person can survive for around one hour in 5C water, two hours in 10C and six hours in 15C – but if the temperature is in the high 20s then it is possible to survive for around 25 hours.

Humans can go into shock if they are suddenly immersed into cold water – which often means they lose the ability to control their breathing, according to this guide on Personal Survival Techniques produced for the Irish sea fisheries board.

As their body temperature falls, someone can become tired, confused or disorientated.

The best way to slow down the rate at which your body cools is to avoid swimming and instead try to float in the water with your knees raised up to your chest.

Calm sea

Professor Tipton told BBC Radio 5 Live that the “flat, calm conditions” meant the woman, named by newspapers as Kay Longstaff, was able to float, swim and “stay pretty much where she fell in”.

“She wasn’t being battered by waves for the whole of the time. She would have most inevitably had drowned if that had been the case.”

“Actually, finding people is as big a challenge as the other stuff,” Professor Tipton said.

“It’s just a really difficult thing to find what essentially is a head in the water.”

The RNLI says clothing and footwear improves a person’s buoyancy during their first moments in the water because it traps air – and moving less will help the air stay trapped.

According to a maritime training school on Australia’s Sunshine Coast, anyone who finds themselves stuck in the water should look for something that is floating and hold on to it.

If they do not have a life jacket, they should try to make buoyancy out of clothing.

Women float better than men?

Professor Tipton, who co-wrote a book called Essentials of Sea Survival, told BBC 5 Live that women’s high proportion of body fat – typically 10% more than men – can work in their favour.

“They have more subcutaneous fat and that means they are more buoyant because the body’s buoyancy comes primarily from the air and fat in the body,” he said.

The extra fat also helps keep the body warm, Professor Tipton added, which helps when the human body gets tired in the water.

“You can imagine if you have to swim for 10 hours to keep your airway clear of the water, there’s a pretty good chance you’d get exhausted.”

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Psychology of survival

In order to survive this kind of ordeal, you also need to be mentally resilient.

According to Survival Psychology by Dr John Leach, during disaster situations, most people will be paralysed into doing nothing to help themselves.

Others will panic but some will immediately take active measures to survive.

“I think there is a big psychological aspect,” said Professor Tipton. “At the time, hours six, seven, eight and nine it must be a fairly desperate situation to be in.

“You can imagine a scenario where perhaps a search and rescue boat had come by and not seen her, what that would do to your psychology and survival but thankfully in this case she was found.”


Famous castaways: Who survived longest at sea?

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Mexican shark fisherman Jesus Vidana describing his crew’s remarkable story of spending 270 days adrift

  • Mexican Jose Salvador Alvarenga endured 440 days drifting across the Pacific Ocean until he was found in the Marshall Islands in 2013, emaciated and wearing only his underpants, having swum ashore
  • Poon Lim, a Chinese sailor during World War II, set a record for the longest survival on a life raft. He survived 133 days alone in the Atlantic
  • In 2006 Mexican shark fisherman Jesus Vidana and his crew spent 270 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean before a Taiwanese tuna fishing vessel rescued them off the Marshall Islands.
  • US adventurer Steven Callahan survived 76 days in a life raft in the Atlantic in 1982 after a whale rammed into the hull of his sloop, Napoleon Solo.