On its way to Venice in Italy, the cruise ship Norwegian Star sails through the warm waters of the Adriatic Sea. But 60 miles off the coast of Croatia, disaster strikes – and a passenger ends up lost at sea. For ten long hours, then, Kay Longstaff subsequently struggles to survive. Yet, thanks to a miraculous rescue effort, she ultimately lives to tell her incredible story.
Ever since they made their debut in the early 20th century, cruise ships have provided a luxurious way to travel around the world. Yet while such vessels are certainly now more cutting-edge than the elegant steamships of bygone eras, they nevertheless still offer a slower and more relaxing alternative to airplanes. Indeed, traveling by boat provides an adventure where the journey is all part of the experience.
And although cruise ships from the ill-fated RMS Titanic to the stately Queen Elizabeth 2 have had a reputation over the years as being rather formal places, now they often nod towards modern tastes. Today, in fact, the vessels are just as likely to come equipped with climbing walls and cinema screens as they are with gourmet restaurants and smoking lounges.
But despite such changes, the essence of cruising has remained the same: the pursuit gives passengers a welcome opportunity to kick back, relax and enjoy life on the ocean waves. And every year, more than 22 million people – supported by some 4.5 million members of crew – embark on their own journeys. In fact, cruising is an industry that’s showing no sign of slowing down.
What’s more – and thanks, perhaps, to the inviting beaches and access to historical attractions taken in along the way – the Mediterranean Sea is one of the most popular bodies of water in which to cruise. During the summer months, a vast array of ships travel across the sea, ferrying passengers between places such as Dubrovnik in Croatia and Barcelona in Spain. And in this way, cruisers combine cultural tourism with a chance to relax on-deck between ports of call.
Among the many vessels that regularly sail these waters, moreover, is the Norwegian Star, which is owned and operated by the American company Norwegian Cruise Line. Initially launched in September 2001, the ship reaches almost 1,000 feet in length and a little more than 100 feet in width – making her just small enough to navigate the Panama Canal.
At first, the Norwegian Star was put into service carrying passengers around the Hawaiian Islands. In 2004 the ship was relocated, however, to the west coast of America, where she alternated between Alaskan and Mexican cruises. And since then, she has also traveled to New York City, Bermuda and the Caribbean.
Then, from 2013, the Norwegian Star embarked on a new timetable. Consequently, she spent winters in Mexico and Central America and summers in northern Europe. The ship has received several updates and refurbishments over the years, too. And today, the 2,350-capacity vessel boasts everything from a casino and a spa to a choice of over ten different places in which to dine.
However, things haven’t always been plain sailing on board the Norwegian Star. Technical problems with the ship’s systems, for instance, have sometimes forced the cruise line to cancel or amend its itineraries. In April 2012 a visit to New York City was also marred when the vessel collided with a pier.
But arguably the biggest incident involving the Norwegian Star occurred on August 18, 2018. On that occasion, a 46-year-old British woman named Kay Longstaff was on board with her partner, Craig Rayment. And while most of the other passengers were busy enjoying the last night of a seven-day adventure, Longstaff ultimately found herself trapped in an unimaginable nightmare.
Born in the town of Sutton Coldfield in England’s West Midlands, Longstaff was a woman intently focused on her career. Sadly, her mother had died when she had been just a teenager, leaving her to face a lifelong battle with anxiety and depression. And according to Longstaff’s friends, she had no interest in starting a family of her own.
Back in 2016, however, Longstaff left the United Kingdom and moved to the Spanish resort of Torrequebrada with her then-partner of seven years, Luke Hopkins. Before leaving the country, the couple had lived in a rural area of Worcestershire in England’s West Midlands as well as the town of Cheltenham in the south-west of the country.
Longstaff had always dreamed of living abroad, though, and so she finally made the decision to relocate to Spain. And, happily, she ultimately managed to land herself a job working for the private jet operator NetJets. The dream position would see her caring for celebrities such as British socialite Tamara Ecclestone and the soccer player Bastian Schweinsteiger.
But just three months into the Spanish adventure, Longstaff decided to end things with Hopkins. And by the time that she boarded the Norwegian Star, she had a new boyfriend by her side. She had met Craig Rayment, an electrician, in Torrequebrada, it’s said, and the pair had apparently been living together since November 2017.
And Longstaff and Rayment were passengers on the Norwegian Star on August 18, 2018. That day, the vessel had left the Croatian port of Vargarola for the final leg of a cruise that had visited Kotor in Montenegro as well as the Greek Islands and Dubrovnik. But while the ship was making its way to its last port of call in Venice, Italy, something terrible happened: at around 11:45 p.m., Longstaff plunged from the seventh deck into the sea below.
However, sources differ about what happened next. According to some, Rayment realized that Longstaff was missing and so spent several hours looking for her. After his search proved fruitless, then, he reported her disappearance to the crew. Other reports say, by contrast, that Rayment remained oblivious to the incident until he was awoken in his cabin.
In this second version of events, moreover, it’s claimed that crew members found Longstaff’s abandoned belongings on the ship, leading them to believe that the woman had gone overboard. But whichever story is true, the outcome was the same: the Norwegian Star duly turned around in a bid to find the missing woman.
Unfortunately, at first, the hunt for Longstaff came up empty-handed; by the morning, there was still no sign of the Englishwoman. So, as the Norwegian Star continued en route to Venice, the Croatian Coast Guard was enlisted to assist in the search. And at 6:30 a.m., they launched an operation by both sea and air to try and spot Longstaff in the waters of the Adriatic Sea.
In the meantime, rescuers had been able to use the ship’s CCTV footage to establish when and where Longstaff had gone into the water. “Because they knew the time, they were able to know the exact position of the ship,” the Croatian Ministry of Maritime Affairs’ David Radas later told the BBC. Apparently, the Norwegian Star had been 60 miles off the coast of Croatia when the incident had occurred.
Then, at 9:40 a.m. on August 19, the crew of a Croatian Coast Guard ship spotted Longstaff in the sea. Apparently, she had only drifted a mile from where she first hit the water. And before long, one man had jumped in to help the desperate woman onto the vessel; miraculously, she was relatively unharmed, too.
Longstaff had been in the water for ten hours at this point, and she had reportedly almost given up on making it through the ordeal when help arrived. “It was at the very moment that she thought she wouldn’t survive… when the boat arrived to save her,” an anonymous source told the Daily Mail in 2018.
Then, following her dramatic rescue, Longstaff was taken to hospital in the Croatian town of Pula, where she was kept overnight. And even though she was reportedly suffering from hypothermia and an injury to her cheek, she was soon discharged. It’s been said that she also had an emotional reunion with Rayment during this time.
Longstaff’s survival was met with shock and relief, too – especially considering the length of time that she had been lost overboard. “I’m so surprised that she is okay after being in the sea for ten hours,” Pula General Hospital’s Dr. Irene Hrstic told the Daily Mail. Some of the flight attendant’s fellow passengers also expressed delight at her miraculous rescue.
And, naturally, Longstaff appeared glad to have been rescued. In an interview given shortly after her ordeal, she admitted, too, that she was “very lucky to be alive.” In addition, the British woman credited her interest in yoga as giving her the fitness that she needed to survive in the water for so long; she supposedly also sang throughout the night to distract herself from the situation.
“I fell off the back of the Norwegian Star, and I was in the water for about ten hours,” Longstaff is reported to have said. “So these wonderful guys rescued me.” However, what seemed at first to be an uplifting story about a miracle rescue at sea soon took a darker turn. How? Well, according to some of her fellow passengers, the flight attendant didn’t actually fall from the ship; instead, she allegedly jumped.
Supposedly, Longstaff had been spotted arguing with Rayment throughout the cruise – including on the night that she had disappeared. One of her fellow passengers also claimed that the crew had not treated the incident as an accident at the time. “We were woken up by the alarm bells going off, and then there was an announcement from the captain,” Eddie Palladino told the Daily Mirror in 2018.
“[The captain] said, ‘I’m calling to alert you now that we have a reported jumper off the ship, and we’re in a search-and-rescue mission,’” Palladino continued. He also noted that the height of the vessel’s safety rails would have made it very difficult for Longstaff to have fallen overboard accidentally.
“The railings right across the ship are very high,” Palladino added to the Daily Mirror. “I’m 6 foot tall and would have to climb up to get over them. She didn’t fall by accident. Her shirt was found on the deck.” Elsewhere, passengers reported that Longstaff had been drinking on the day that she had disappeared.
And Cruise Lines International Association’s Andy Harmer echoed the idea that Longstaff may have jumped from the vessel on purpose. “There are no known cases of someone acting responsibly who has accidentally fallen over the railing of a cruise ship,” he told The Guardian in 2018.
Still, reports differed over Longstaff’s alleged mental state at the time of the incident. According to The Guardian, her father, Ron, dismissed suggestions that his daughter had been going through a difficult patch as “rubbish.” He claimed, too, that he had been “sitting in the sun with her a few weeks [prior to the incident].”
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail claimed, by contrast, that Longstaff’s father had admitted his daughter had been struggling. “She’s [been] going through a very hard time,” the newspaper reported him as explaining. “She wouldn’t want to be upsetting me – and, of course, she is.” Furthermore, the Daily Mail added, Ron hadn’t found out about his daughter’s ordeal until he had seen her on television.
By August 21, then, suspicion had grown that Longstaff had plunged from the ship on purpose. “The footage has been viewed, and you can clearly see she was there on her own when she fell,” one source told The Sun. “She was not pushed. The theory we are working on is that she most likely jumped.”
But while there was plenty of speculation about what had really happened on board the Norwegian Star, Longstaff herself remained tight-lipped. In fact, it appears that her main concern was whether or not she would have to cover the rescue operation’s costs – which are thought to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “She asked whether she would need to pay for the expenses of the search,” one rescuer told The Sun.
And although international agreements are in place that prevented Longstaff from having to foot the bill, some commenters have since suggested that she should have been forced to pay. Elsewhere, other passengers expressed their anger over how Norwegian had dealt with the incident. “It was very hectic for them, but we think it could have been handled much better,” one told the BBC.
The Norwegian Star’s arrival in Venice had been delayed by eight hours, you see – prompting some to complain about how Longstaff’s ordeal had affected their holidays. “Everyone is focusing on the woman who went overboard, but what about the other 2,000 people on the cruise who were affected because of it?” passenger Joan Berry told the Daily Mail.
In fact, many people shared their opinion on the story in the aftermath of the incident. And they included Kelly Rayment, who had been briefly married to Longstaff’s partner. “Craig’s not a very nice person when he’s been drinking,” she told the Daily Mirror. “So him going on a cruise is a recipe for disaster. I can imagine what she went through.”
But whatever the true cause of the incident, there’s no escaping the fact that Longstaff was extremely lucky to survive. In fact, it’s believed that on average one person is lost overboard on a cruise ship every month – and the majority of those who have met that fate haven’t been as fortunate as the Englishwoman. So, how exactly did Longstaff manage to stay alive?
Well, apparently the warm, calm waters of the Adriatic played a huge role in Longstaff’s ability to carry on. “The water temperature would have been about 28 °C to 29 °C (82 °F to 84 °F), which is a little bit warmer than a swimming pool,” survival expert Mike Tipton told the BBC. Also, he noted, she “[hadn’t been] battered by waves,” making it easier for her to float on the surface until she was rescued.
Furthermore, the fact that Longstaff is female may have further improved her odds of survival. In general women tend to have more body fat than men, and this therefore may make it easier for them to float. Additionally, Longstaff’s singing may have helped, as it could have promoted the positive attitude that Tipton has claimed is key to enduring in tough conditions.
Ultimately, though, nobody has been prosecuted in relation to the incident – at least, not as yet. And in official documents, Longstaff’s fall has been recorded as accidental, too. Still, that’s not to say that everyone is happy with the British woman. The mother of Norwegian Cruise Line president Andy Stuart has referred to the flight attendant as “stupid,” for instance, and has claimed that her actions cost the company $600,000. Meanwhile, a number of Longstaff’s fellow passengers have also sought compensation for their own disrupted holidays.