In September of 2009, 48 students and 16 teachers and crew members sailed out from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in search of education and inspiration on the water. The West Island College Class Afloat school ship carried mostly Canadians, with others from the U.S., Mexico, Japan and elsewhere. The students were from grades 11 and 12, as well as first-year university. No one could possibly have imagined their 10-month accredited program to have ended so suddenly off the coast of Brazil.
The SV Concordia, built in 1992 in Poland and meeting “all of the international requirements for safety” as well as passing inspections by the U.S. and Canadian coast guards (CBC), sailed from Recife, Brazil on February 8 and was scheduled to dock in Montevideo next week.
In the midst of high winds on Thursday, however, the three-masted Concordia sent out a distress signal at around 1700 local time, 1400 Eastern Standard Time. When Brazilian authorities received the distress call, they contacted the rescue co-ordination centre in Halifax, which alerted the school. Trained well in abandon-ships drills, the students, teachers and crew were able to sail away in well-equipped life-rafts which held blankets, medical supplies, food and water.
A Brazilian Air Force plane spotted the life-rafts around 8 p.m. AT on Thursday, about 483 km off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. Two merchant vessels picked up the students, teachers and crew members and transferred them to a Brazilian navy ship and taken back to the coast of Rio de Janeiro to a navy frigate where they were met by school officials and worried parents who had caught flights out to Brazil during the night.
According to Rear Admiral Leonardo Puntel, “there were two injuries, but they were minor.” (CBC) Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon thanked Brazilian authorities for leading the search and rescue operation. “It’s a tragedy to lose a ship, but a victory that they were rescued,” said Maj. Denise McGuire of the Canadian Joint Rescue and Coordination Centre. (CNN) It is still unknown the actual cause of the ship’s demise.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper thanked Brazilian navy and merchant ships for their “swift and heroic response.” (CBC)
“The skill and compassion demonstrated by Brazilian rescuers is a tribute to their training, spirit and seamanship. Their efforts are deeply appreciated by Canada and will undoubtedly serve as an inspiration to the young Canadians who were aboard the SV Concordia,” Harper said in a statement. (CBC)
A former student on the vessel, who was later a crew member, said he was shocked at the loss of the Concordia. “As with many Class Afloat alumni, I consider the experience to be a defining moment in my life and the loss of the Concordia is heartbreaking – like the loss of a friend,” Sam Carson from the London area told the BBC.