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How a fist of wind pushed the Concordia down

A group of Calgary students who survived the sinking of their floating classroom tallship the Concordia, try on their life vests on board an airport shuttle bus after landing at Pearson airport in Toronto, February 22, 2010.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

His birthday brownies were baking in the oven in the ship's galley. David Saabas carried his laptop to his quarters before heading to his next class. That morning, he had been officially christened 18 years old with a customary salt-water dousing by his fellow students. It was his second semester aboard the Concordia. He was loving every moment.

They knew bad weather was coming - no surprise on their route from Brazil to Uruguay. There'd been squalls all day, a fitful wind would whip up and toss the tall ship. Captain William Curry had lowered some of the 16 sails, trimmed others, and advised the cook to fix sandwiches in case the weather made cooking impossible. Better to be careful: the ocean is a fickle force, especially when you're on a tall ship 500 kilometres from land.

In stormy weather, a gust of wind knocked the SV Concordia right on its port side

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When it happened, most of the 48 Grade 11 and 12 students were in classrooms at deck level, which is likely what saved them. The handful sleeping in their bunks were dumped awake onto the floor. In his cabin, Captain Curry felt the Concordia lean to port, farther and longer than seemed right; he realized, suddenly, she wasn't coming back up. In the galley, the oven door flew open, and the brownies spilled out.

Without warning, a fist of wind had overpowered the ship's sails, pushing over its 11-storey tall masts. The 188-foot vessel toppled over, flipping people, books, anything not tied down. Students such as Katherine Irwin, 16, watched terrified as the windows cracked under the pressure of the water.

In the ship's mess, where Mark Sinker, 27, was teaching history, the waves rushed in though the portholes. Within minutes, the bridge was under water, drowning the communications equipment, making it impossible to call in a mayday.

It took at least 15 minutes for the Concordia to sink. This might seem like a long time, until you imagine 64 people - many of them inexperienced teenaged sailors - trying to snatch life jackets and emergency suits and free the lifeboats, with the world listing sideways, and the ocean raging.

By the time Mr. Saabas made it up onto deck, people were already trying to organize the lifeboats following the drill they'd practised. The three masts floated just beneath the surface. Students who had been in class had clambered to the starboard side, sitting on the wall of the top cabins. With a friend, Mr. Saabas clambered over to the compartment where the immersion suits were stored, and began tossing them out to people.

The Concordia is equipped with more than twice the number of lifeboats that are required, and they are designed to inflate automatically when submerged. A couple had already snapped open on the port side, and people were clambering across the sunken masts and shrouds to reach them. On the dry side, Captain Curry was using a kitchen knife that the cook grabbed on her way up to cut free two rafts that were tangled in the ropes. Joining the other students, Ms. Irwin climbed onto the hull, crouched down, and leaped into the life raft; it was hard to see, you just hoped you'd aimed well.

Once in the boats, they paddled away from the ship, to avoid being sucked down with it. "I find it quite ironic," the cook quipped to Mr. Sinker as they reached a safe distance, "because I'm paddling away from a sinking ship with a guy with the last name of Sinker."

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By the time the tall ship slipped completely under water, all hands were accounted for on four lifeboats. A safe distance from the disappearing Concordia, they managed to lash three together. The fourth had already drifted too far away. (They were picked up first by a merchant vessel)

Now came the second test - surviving the wait, through two cold, damp nights, crammed together underneath the tent of the lifeboat, tossed around in a rough sea. They drifted helplessly through squalls in the dark, sitting in a circle around the edges of the raft with their legs pointed toward the middle, like spokes of a wheel.

Most of the students were wearing only shorts and t-shirts and many had donned emergency suits. Even with seasickness pills, some people threw up. Nobody slept much. It was a shock - about a dozen of the mostly Canadian students had been sailing on the Concordia only since second semester began two weeks earlier. For the next four months, they were supposed to be travelling to places such Walvis Bay, Namibia, and the Port of Spain. Now they were just wanted to see their families again.

They had energy bars and water packets, although, not knowing how long rescue would take, they were carefully limiting water rations to hourly sips. The short storms were a mixed blessing because they could catch rain to drink. One of the lifeboats - the one with both Mr. Saabas and Mr. Sinker on board - had a sprung a slow leak, so they were often sitting in a pool of water, taking shifts bailing.

They sat that way for 41 hours, watching the red flashing light of their handheld emergency beacon, hoping someone was listening. (Back on land, when efforts to call the Concordia by satellite phone failed, the search started in earnest.) Morale went up and down - buoyed by the sight of a plane overhead that may have seen their flares, then crushed again in the darkness of their second night - so they distracted themselves by talking about the first meal they'd eat when they got home and singing sea shanties. Mr. Saabas and a friend even acted out scenes from Monty Python.

And finally, on Friday, rescue: the merchant ship Hokuestu Delight appeared on the horizon, welcomed them on board with warm soup and dry beds, and brought them home.

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With reports from Oliver Moore, Jill Mahoney, Sarah Boesveld, Jeffrey Simpson and Susan Krashinsky

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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