Did you hear about the man who went overboard while on a cruise ship last month—and survived? How he ended up overboard is a bit of a mystery…the man was in one of the ship’s bars with his sister and excused himself around 11:00 PM to use the restroom. His next memory is waking up in the Gulf of Mexico. (He says he was not drunk, and the fall overboard knocked him unconscious.) For 20 hours he battled jellyfish, nasty rip currents and a possible brush with a shark. He munched on floating pieces of bamboo to stay nourished and mask the taste of seawater. When the Coast Guard rescued him the following evening, he was mere minutes from death.
I have so many questions…namely, how does one “not remember” tumbling over a cruise ship railing? Also, his family didn’t report him missing until the next day, so how on earth did rescuers locate him so quickly? I did a little digging, and it turns out the individual we have to thank—for this man’s rescue and thousands of others lost at sea—is someone you’ve probably never heard of. His name is Arthur Allen, and until 2019, he worked as an oceanographer for the United States Coast Guard. In May 2001, Allen spent a day observing rescue operations at the Rescue Coordination Center in Portsmouth, Virginia. The experience was horrifying. Even when search and rescue operators knew exactly where and when a ship capsized, they had no formulas or technologies to help them determine where a ship—and its occupants—would drift, resulting in impossibly large search grids. When the center fielded a call about a capsized sailboat that was carrying three adults and one child, Allen helplessly stood by as operators struggled to pinpoint where the boat was drifting. The Coast Guard finally located the boat the following morning thanks to a tip, but it was too late; the child and another adult (the child’s mother) did not survive. Allen was haunted by the experience and returned home determined to develop formulas for how people and objects drift in coastal waters in varying weather conditions. (He experimented by tossing objects into the Long Island Sound and observing their drift patterns.) He later pioneered a computer modeling program that predicts where objects at sea will be found. While Allen did receive a public service award in 2019 for his contributions, his role in saving thousands of lives at sea is rarely mentioned.
I took a cruise years ago, and I spent most of the time obsessively checking and rechecking the locks to our stateroom balcony, terrified that my then-toddler children would tumble overboard. I only went out on the balcony once; the view of the vast, endless sea was unnerving. At any moment, it could swallow me whole.
PS This podcast is a fascinating deep dive (excuse the pun) into Allen’s work!
Sticking close to shore,