School Ship Concordia Disaster


I’m sure a few Hollywood agents are already wrangling over the rights to this one. It’s got everything needed for a blockbuster movie script: a crowd of innocent kids, some seriously mortal danger, plus a big fat happy ending. The scary part of the tale concerns the fate of the Canadian school ship Concordia, a 188-foot square-rigger with 48 high-school students aboard, that sank in a matter of minutes last Wednesday after being struck by a savage microburst 300 miles off the coast of Brazil. The miraculous part of the story is that everyone aboard–all the students, plus 16 other crew–escaped alive and was brought safely to shore.

Smack dab in the middle of this drama we find one huge unanswered question: why did it take Brazilian authorities over 24 hours to respond to Concordia‘s distress signal???

 According to a timeline published yesterday by the Calgary Herald, Concordia‘s EPIRB was ignited as the vessel sank at 2:30 pm on the afternoon of Wednesday Feb. 17. The Brazilian navy claims it received no notice of the alert until 9 pm that evening. The navy then evidently spent much time twiddling its thumbs, trying to figure out what vessel transmitted the signal and whether it was really in distress. Attempts were allegedly made to contact Concordia via radio and e-mail; other vessels and aircraft in the area were contacted and were asked to report if they had seen anything unusual. According to a report filed by the Associated Press, it wasn’t until 10 am Thursday morning that naval authorities contacted West College International in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, which runs Concordia‘s Class Afloat program, to enquire as to the vessel’s status. Not until 2:30 pm that afternoon did the navy ask the Brazilian air force launch a search for the vessel, and evidently a search plane didn’t take off until 5 pm. Fortunately, once in the air, it took the plane only three hours to locate the survivors.

Fortunately, too, abandon-ship drills were routinely conducted aboard Concordia, and everyone knew exactly what to do when the excrement hit the fan. According to Capt. William Curry and others onboard the microburst took only a few seconds to capsize the ship, which was reefed down in anticipation of heavy weather, and then the ship sank in less than 30 minutes. “We followed orders, helped each other, lifting each other’s feet out, and then finally we got out the starboard side,” recounted one 16-year-old survivor. The survivors spent 30 hours in liferafts before being spotted by the Brazilian search plane, during which time they had no idea whether a distress signal had been successfully transmitted. About 10 hours later they were taken off the rafts by merchant vessels dispatched to the scene by Brazilian authorities.

Aficionados of maritime disasters will recall this is not the first time a school ship packed with students has been lost at sea. Back in 1961, the school ship Albatross, owned by Christopher and Alice Sheldon, who ran a program called Ocean Academy, was suddenly overwhelmed in a squall in the Gulf of Mexico about 180 miles west of Key West. Of the 21 people aboard, six were lost, including Alice Sheldon and four students. The tragedy was revisited in the 1996 Hollywood film White Squall, starring Jeff Bridges, and was later dissected in great detail in Daniel S. Parrott’s authoritative book Tall Ships Down (International Marine/McGraw Hill, 2003), a scholarly study of five different modern-day disasters involving large square-rigged vessels.

Unlike Concordia, which was designed and built in 1992 specifically for use as a school ship, Albatross was a seaworthy Dutch pilot schooner when first launched in 1921, but subsequently suffered several modifications that degraded her stability. The most significant of these was the conversion to a square rig, undertaken by author Ernest K. Gann in 1955. Ultimately, the loss of the Albatross helped inspire the adoption of the Sailing School Vessels Act, which regulates the construction and operation of school ships in the United States. So far there is no suggestion that Concordia‘s fate was due to any flaw on her part, but the Brazilian navy, as Ricky Ricardo so often put it, does have a lot of ‘splaining to do. An investigation of the incident is reportedly underway.

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