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First-hand account of the sinking of the Concordia

The following is the transcript of an interview with Mark Sinker, a history and English teacher who was aboard the SV Concordia when it capsized last week off the coast of Brazil. Mr. Sinker, 27, arrived back in Canada on Monday morning.

What were you doing when things started to go wrong?

So I was in the mess teaching a history class. And as we were proceeding with the class sort of noticed some water coming in on the port side, left side of the ship. And a little bit concerned, but sometimes the water level does get pretty high because we often keel.

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But a few waves came in and we realized that it was serious. We managed to climb out of the mess and by that time the ship had, I guess more or less, the mast had fallen into the water and I guess it was a 90 degree angle in a sense. And we were able to help each other up and sort of sit on the hull and then we were able to move closer to the stern, the back of the ship.

And then as this was happening myself and a few other students were able to keep pulling people out from the mess. Other students distributed life jackets and immersion suits, which are just large suits that are designed to keep people warm in cold water. So as we were doing that we were able to get one life raft at the back of the ship deployed with students on it.

Myself and two other students along with the captain, there were a few life rafts that were inflated but they were sort of stuck so we worked together and we were able to dislodge them and get those free so that we could the rest of the crew onboard and then we managed to get everyone on the life rafts a few minutes before she sunk almost completely.

So it was great timing and then myself and the cook and a couple other students took turns - we wanted to paddle away. We were concerned about getting caught with the sinking vessel in the life raft. But we found out that we were still attached, so we had to cut the rope and then we were fine. And then a few minutes later we were able to connect with two other life rafts. And then we connected and checked to see how everyone was doing. A few people were seasick. A lot of people were obviously shocked as to what was going on but students overall performed magnificently, great teamwork, great leadership. Keeping their heads level-headed and making sure everything got done.

...

There were a few people who were upset and most people, of course, were worried. But there was a sense of urgency but it didn't shut people down. People were still able to use their heads. They were able to function and they were able to work as a group and say, "OK this is what you need to do now and they were able to do it."

And then in the life rafts we simply took anti-seasickness pills just to ensure that everyone was doing well. And I guess just waited and waited to be rescued. And then we spent a number of hours in the life raft, I think about 41 hours in total, I think it was for us. And overall morale was pretty high, we found. There were times when it was pretty low. Our life raft seemed to consistently leak and so we were often sitting in a pool of water, but we kept bailing, which actually was good because it gave them something to do as well. And some of the students occasionally would sing a song and just really help each other out. It was a tight squeeze but we were able to stay confident in knowing that someone would come and get us eventually and eventually they did.

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You're in the mess teaching. Where is the mess on the boat?

The mess would be closer to the front of the ship.

And then people evacuated from the back of the ship, you said?

We evacuated sort of out through the mess and then went closer to the back. I think the life rafts that we got into were about mid-ship, so I guess the middle of the ship. But there was another life raft that they were able to deploy and that was at the back.

How were you able to get from the ship to the life raft? Was the ship still upright when you guys got off?

No, the masts were in the water. So we were able to sort of climb around the ship and then a bit of a jump, not much of a jump. I think maybe one person ended up in the water; we pulled them right in. Most people were able simply from the ship jump right into the life raft. How many life rafts were there?

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There were four.

... Once you were in the water were the rafts together?

Three of them were. I was in that group. There was one that was on their own.

What was going through your mind as the ship was going down when you were trying to evacuate it?

Certainly, I guess our major focus was making sure everyone had a life jacket on and making sure that everyone was there and making sure that we would be on the life raft. And then after that making sure that we could get as far away from the vessel as possible. We didn't want to get caught in that.

Did you have any emotions about what was happening?

Certainly it was a profound event, but I think the objective of getting people out was what kept us focused. So certainly as I saw the vessel sinking - I've been part of the program for a couple years now and it's a fantastic program - it's sad to see the ship go, but also a relief to know we had everyone on the life rafts as well.

How did you know that everyone was accounted for? Were people actually counting?

Yeah, we were doing head counts. And making sure that people were aware. We're broken up into watches, the student, so they were able to figure out if all their watch was there. And checking for roommates as well.

Were you able to take supplies with you?

Supplies were already in the life rafts so when they deployed they were already there, which is great. We had plenty of water and plenty of food. And a lot of flares. Emergency equipment, medical equipment. So we were very well equipped.

So you were in the life rafts for 40-plus hours. How did you pass the time? What were people doing?

Sometimes we would, simply I think everyone would just escape in their own thoughts and try to get through it. People tried to sleep, which was tough. Many people were able to. We always had someone on lookout, just making sure, keeping an eye out on the horizon for any ships or planes. We'd often have people bailing the water just to make sure we didn't fill up too quickly. And then a lot of people, we'd have just talks. People would often, a few songs would be sung once in a while just to keep morale high.

What did you talk about?

A lot of people, the students especially talked about, ah, just all sorts of topics. They did a good job of always trying to stay positive. We weren't always thinking, "OK, when are we going to get rescued?" It was simply we knew it was going to happen. I think consistently talking about that would have been detrimental. Things such as, talking about their first meal when they get back to Canada. Things like that.

So did you think you'd be rescued? Was there ever any doubt about that?

No, we were pretty confident. We heard the plane and that, of course, confirmed our understanding that we had been found. It had taken a number of hours in between before we actually made contact with the ship. But especially when people saw that plane, people were sure that we had been spotted and they knew we were out there.

And so you said that it taken a number of hours before you were in contact with the ship, which ship do you mean?

It was a merchant marine vessel.

OK. And how were you in contact with that? Did you have some kind of beacon?

We had a ... EPIRB [emergency positioning indicating radio beacon]which sends a satellite signal of our location. … That essentially sends out a signal which the Brazilian air force was able to find us using that. And then any ships in the area were instructed [to go to]that vicinity. And then we saw a light of a ship in the distance. We sent up a few flares and they responded and then they were able to proceed to where we were.

And then how long after that was it that you were rescued?

It took us a while. It's a very large vessel that we eventually ended up on. And because we had no real mechanism of steering, you would have to float up to the ship and then they would throw lines down and if we missed a line, or if we floated away in the wrong direction, they would essentially have to move the large vessel around again so that we would float back to it. It took a while.

Like hours?

It did.

OK. And that was with all four rafts, right?

That was with the three rafts. I think, I'm not sure, the single raft I think they had a few less hours in the life raft.

What were some of the high and low points of those 40 hours?

As soon as we were on the life rafts, we'd all made it, there was I think a great sense of relief. And a sense of satisfaction that we had accomplished getting everyone on the life boats. For the first while, it was pretty high. During the day, I would say it didn't really go down too low. A few people were starting to sort of, a little bit the morale maybe decreased a bit. The morning, I guess it would be Thursday morning, it was a beautiful morning. And morale was pretty high again.

But as the day progressed, and still no sign of anything, a few people started to get a little bit not as high spirits. I would say probably the lowest point for many would have been the period in between seeing the plane and seeing the boat, because it had been a number of hours. People were starting to get really cold and just exhausted. And then when we saw the ship, morale went up. And then when it took us a couple of hours, morale went down. But then when we all got on the ship, morale was at an all-time high.

Once you were on that vessel that rescued you, what did you do?

Yeah, they were fantastic. They assisted us, because having not walked for two days, many of us were very sore so they essentially helped us get up to where they had us seated. They provided warm blankets, warm clothes. They had hot soup ready for us. And it was great. They were excellent.

Then what happened - they took you to Rio de Janeiro?

Yes, that's correct. So we proceed to the port of Rio de Janeiro. And that took us about, I think it was 15 or 16 hours … And then from there, we transferred to a much smaller boat and then from there we went to a military base in Rio.

The plane you took to Canada today, was that from Rio or Sao Paolo?

Yesterday we took a bus from Rio to Sao Paolo. Then we took a direct overnight flight from Sao Paolo to Toronto. So all the Canadian students did that. We had some American students, a New Zealander, a Brit. I think they left from Rio. So the Canadians flew from Sao Paolo to Toronto. And then from Toronto, a lot are from Calgary. And a few went out east.

What's it like to be back home?

It's great. I think, especially for the students, I think the next few days will be such an emotional roller coaster. They'll be excited to see their families but also I think sad because the friendships that they had formed. But from past experiences, the friends that they made on Class Afloat often remain a long-time together. We're not quite sure what's going to happen in the next few weeks. It sounds right now that the plan is perhaps to get all the students, as many as possible, back to Lunenburg for a proper debrief session. But they've been busy right now so we don't know much of what's going to happen. But hopefully we'll get back together and do a correct debrief. But the priority at this point was to get everyone home to see their families.

What's the first thing you did when you got home?

I took a shower.

It wasn't the first?

No, I had a shower in the hotel room. But, I mean a day on the bus and a day on the plane…

What are your plans now?

I think to see what's going to happen with the Lunenburg situation and go from there. I lost most of my official documents, so I have to get all that stuff.

Yeah, you guys lost everything, right?

That's right, yeah. But just I think the next few days we'll really find out what's going on with the program and Lunenburg and I guess just go from there.

Are there plans for the kids to go to school in Lunenburg?

They said that is what they would like, if students are interested. There are some students who if they don't, it would be too late for them to join other programs. They would have to do high school next year, where many would have done university next year. But I think interest is if students would like to do it, but again I'm really not sure what their plans are. I think the next few days that's what the office will be sorting out.

What do you think about the irony of your name and the ordeal you've been through?

Well you know, it's interesting. Myself and the cook, when we were paddling away trying to get away from the ship and she made a comment, something to the effect of, "I find it quite ironic because I'm paddling away from a sinking ship with a guy with the last name of Sinker". So yeah. … It is funny, I think in a way.

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