'Catastrophic problems' sink Canadian ship
By Mike Barber, Canwest News Service February 19, 2010 12:39

More Images An undated handout photograph shows the Canadian school ship SV Concordia navigating. Photograph by: West Island College/Handout, Reuters

All 64 people aboard a Canadian tall ship, including 48 high school and university students, have been rescued from a sinking ship off the coast of Brazil, the school's head said Friday.

The SV Concordia ran into trouble about 555 kilometres off the coast of Rio de Janeiro Thursday night after the Lunenburg, N.S.-based was flipped upside down in strong winds, a news release from the Brazilian navy said.

Of the 64 aboard, 42 were Canadians. The students range in age from 16 to 19 years old.

Among those aboard the Concordia were five students from the Calgary campus of the West Island College International's Class Afloat program, and David Saabas, a Montrealer who had celebrated his 18th birthday at sea on Wednesday, his mother, Christie Johnson said.

"It has been a very long night," said Johnson Friday from her Montreal home. "It's devastating. Obviously for me as a mother, it's been a terrible time. I'm just incredibly relieved that everybody's safe, including my son."

Kate Knight, head of the school, said from Lunenburg on Friday that the ship sent out its first distress signal around 8 a.m., Atlantic time, on Thursday.

"That was confirmation for us that we obviously had encountered catastrophic problems with our vessel, which would lead them to abandon ship," said Knight. "Our first concern was the safety and security of all our staff members and our students. It's obviously shocking information to receive."

About 12 hours later, a C-130 Hercules aircraft from the Brazilian air force located the Concordia's life rafts and Zodiac boat.

Ships in the area were alerted, and two Brazilian merchant marine vessels and a Japanese freighter headed for the wreckage. After spending the night aboard the rafts, Knight said the crew was rescued by the merchant marine ships by 6:30 a.m. Friday.

Knight said the crew had boarded Brazilian merchant marine ships, and would be transferred to a Brazilian naval vessel.

Two staff members from the school have been dispatched to Brazil to liaise with crew members before they return to their families.

Knight said this is the first such incident for the school, which has operated the Concordia since its construction in 1992.

She said that hearing about the ship's demise was like losing a member of the family. "It's a focal point to the experience that we provide to young people."

The students all receive "extensive" training, said Knight, including weekly and monthly drills for abandoning ship, onboard fires, and men overboard.

"I have no doubt in this situation that we just faced all of our crew members showed great leadership and a lot of courage and worked together really well as a team to make sure they're all taken care of."

Johnson, of Montreal described her son David as "the kind of kid who loves adventure, loves a challenge." He first learned about the program in 2008, and immediately knew it was an experience he wanted to partake in.

"He really wanted it. From the beginning, I told him 'If you really want this, I'll help you apply but you get yourself into this program.' And he did."

And getting accepted to the Class Afloat program isn't easy.

Besides the $42,500 tuition, Johnson said prospective students need numerous letters of reference and top marks throughout high school.

After David was accepted, she arranged a meeting with the school in Lunenburg to quell any reservations she had about sending her son on the transatlantic journey.

"I came back and told my husband, 'I'm fine with this,'" said Johnson, who said she was impressed with the staff's professionalism and safety standards.

Johnson said David's father has flown to Brazil to greet his son in Rio.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed relief on Friday about the rescue.

"On behalf of all of Canadians, I would like to thank both the Brazilian navy and merchant vessel crews for their swift and heroic response, saving the lives of all 64 passengers on board the Canadian tall ship SV Concordia . . . " Harper said in a statement.

"The skill and compassion demonstrated by Brazilian rescuers is a tribute to their training, spirit and seamanship."

The ship had left Recife, Brazil, on Feb. 8 and was scheduled to dock in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, on Feb. 23.

The Concordia had just started its second semester, and had intended to sail from Montevideo to South Africa, then back across the Atlantic to the Caribbean before finally returning to Lunenburg for graduation on June 26.

West Island College was founded as a private high school in Montreal in 1975, and the Calgary campus opened in 1982.

However, school officials at the Montreal school said the three campuses haven't been officially affiliated with one another since the schools' founder, Terry Davies, retired a few yeas ago.

The university courses aboard the ship were affiliated with Nova Scotia's Acadia University.

With files from the Calgary Herald

Copyright (c) Canwest News Service

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