64 students, crew rescued from sunken Canadian sailing vessel beginning arriving in Rio

By Bradley Brooks, AP
Saturday, February 20, 2010

Students rescued off Brazil coast arrive in Rio

RIO DE JANEIRO — After clinging to life rafts in high seas for up to 40 hours, more than five dozen students and crew rescued from a Canadian sailing ship that sank in the Atlantic began arriving in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday.

The three-masted SV Concordia was on a five-month voyage that allows students in grades 11 and 12 and the first year of college to study while sailing around the world.

The ship’s captain told The Associated Press that the vessel sank Wednesday afternoon — a day earlier than previously reported. All 64 people aboard were rescued by merchant ships early Friday.

Capt. William Curry said the Concordia’s crew had prepared a day beforehand for what they anticipated would be rough but not unusual weather. He was below deck when the ship suddenly keeled — which was normal. But it immediately keeled a second time, and Curry said he knew instantly the vessel was in great danger.

The captain blamed the wreck on a “microburst,” a sudden, vertical downdraft; when the vessel keeled, the entire surface area of the sails was exposed to the powerful wind, and within 15 seconds, the boat went from sailing normally, upright, to lying on its side and beginning to sink. Thirty minutes later it was completely underwater, Curry said.

“The boat started keeling a lot,” said 16-year-old passenger Lauren Unsworth, a Dutch-Canadian who lives in Amsterdam. “It came back up, keeled again, was basically lying on its side and all the windows began to break. That’s when we knew it was time to flee.”

Curry said that the Concordia’s radio equipment was underwater and unusable, keeping the crew from being able to call for help, but an emergency beacon was automatically released into the water.

They abandoned ship and took to the rafts in high winds and heavy seas, spending more than a day adrift in the Atlantic before spotting the first signs of rescuers.

“We had been in the life raft for about 30 hours when we saw a search plane for the first time,” Unsworth added. “That’s when we knew we were not alone and that help was on the way.”

The navy said the distress signal was picked up about 5 p.m. Thursday, and an air force plane later spotted life rafts in the ocean about 300 miles (500 kilometers) from Rio.

Disheveled and teary-eyed, and wearing navy caps and clothing borrowed from their rescuers, at least 12 of the rescued docked in Rio at 10:45 a.m. on a Brazilian navy ship. The rest were to arrive later in the afternoon on two merchant vessels.

About 10 students stood on deck taking photos of themselves and the dozens of photographers waiting to meet them.

“This was only my 15th day at sea. It was definitely a shocker,” said a tearful Katherine Irwin, 16, of Calgary. “At first I was, like, I’m never going back into the ocean. But after thinking about the friendships I made in the raft, I definitely would do it again.”

Forty-eight of those on the vessel were students, said Kate Knight, head of West Island College International of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, which operates the Class Afloat program.

School officials said 42 of those aboard were from Canada. Knight said others hail from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Europe and the West Indies.

Edgardo Ybranez, captain of the Philippine flagged Hokuetsu Delight cargo ship which rescued 44 people, told the AP on Friday via satellite phone that everyone from the Concordia was unhurt except for the doctor, who suffered an injury before the rescue “but he is OK now.” He gave no more details.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement thanking the Brazilian navy and the merchant ships for their “swift and heroic response.”

The ship had visited Europe and Africa since leaving Canada in September, and it had just begun a five-month semester program on leaving Recife in Brazil’s northeast Feb. 8. It had been scheduled to dock Tuesday in Montevideo, Uruguay, then visit several islands in the Atlantic as well as southern Africa and the Caribbean before returning to Canada.

West Island College International’s Web site says the 188-foot-long (57.5-meter-long) Concordia was built in 1992 and “meets all of the international requirements for safety.” It carries up to 66 passengers and crew and also can operate under motor power.

The site lists tuition for the sailing program at 42,500 Canadian dollars ($40,600) a year.

Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.

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