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Questions raised in tall ship sinking

Why didn't Concordia right herself? And why was there a 26-hour delay in mounting a rescue?

The sinking of the tall ship Concordia off Brazil has raised questions about the 26-1/2-hour delay in launching a rescue as well as the vessel's stability. But the evacuation of the 188-foot three-master without loss of life was unquestionably a feat of crew discipline and training that prevented misfortune from escalating into tragedy.

The 188-foot steel-hulled barkentine Corcordia sank in about 20 minutes after being knocked down in a suspected microburst.

The 64 students and crew aboard the Canadian school ship survived the Feb. 17 sinking 344 miles out. Concordia's captain, William Curry, says he thinks a microburst - a violent downdraft that struck suddenly and without warning - knocked the ship on its side. Unable to recover, Concordia sank in less than half an hour, but before it did the crew shepherded all of the students - high school juniors and seniors and college freshmen - on deck and into four 20-person rafts.

"The best analogy I can think of for this is the landing of that airliner in the Hudson River," says Bert Rogers, executive director of the American Sail Training Association in Newport, R.I., an organization for school ships. "The professional judgment and skill of the captain and the training and readiness of the crew and the students allowed the evacuation to come off without loss of life."

The survivors spent a harrowing 40 hours in the life rafts. Concordia's EPIRB activated automatically when it sank, but the rescue was slow to gear up as the Brazilian navy tried to confirm that the beacon's activation was a real mayday.

Two ships from the Amver program were dispatched to rescue the 64 students and crew. They were transferred to the Brazilian navy frigate Constituicao and taken back to port, though questions have been raised about the navy's delay in launching a rescue.

Why did that take so long, especially with a large school ship involved? "This has been the question of the day," says Nigel McCarthy, president and CEO of West Island College International in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, which operates the Class Afloat school aboard the 18-year-old barkentine.

Concordia was sailing from Recife, Brazil, to Montevideo, Uruguay, when stormy weather threatened the afternoon of Feb. 17. Curry, in an interview with Canada's CBC Radio, says the crew had shortened sail 24 hours earlier in anticipation of deteriorating conditions, but the wind had not piped up yet.

Curry says it was blowing just 16 to 17 knots. He was below in his cabin when Concordia suddenly heeled. He expected the ship to stiffen up and accelerate and sail through the gust, but she didn't. Instead, she hesitated and then went over on her side, masts in the water in a 100-degree knockdown. It all happened in maybe 15 seconds.

Curry says it appeared Concordia was knocked down by a microburst, a violent, localized downdraft that often comes literally "out of the blue," hits the water vertically and accelerates horizontally as it disperses along the surface.

"He said, 'It knocked us down, and we couldn't come back up,' " McCarthy says.

Fortunately, many of the students were studying in classrooms on deck, where they were able to don life jackets or immersion suits, leap into the water or make their way to the masts to shimmy down to the life rafts. Others had to scramble up from below, where ports were breaking and water was flooding in.

The rafts were rugged New Zealand-manufactured RFDs - with canopies - that had been stored in canisters on the side of the deck that was still above the surface. (The canisters on the other side of the deck were under water.) Curry says a pontoon or inflation tube on one of the rafts deflated on the second evening, but the occupants stayed in it until their rescue the next morning.

The rescue

The students and crew had just come off three days of safety drills, including abandon-ship tactics. "The fact that their evacuation plan did not unravel is a testament to their training, planning, judgment and drilling," says ASTA's Rogers.

Concordia was carrying a half-dozen radios and a satellite phone, but they all were in the radio room, which was under water within seconds of the knockdown, Curry told CBC radio. The inability to transmit a mayday or respond to calls from the Brazilians as they tried to confirm that the school ship was in distress factored into the reluctance to launch a rescue operation immediately.

A geostationary satellite received the distress signal from Concordia's EPIRB at 2:04 p.m. Feb. 17, but the ship's GPS location was not embedded in the signal (not all beacons have integral GPS), says Lt. Shawn Maddock, operations support officer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's SARSAT office, which monitors satellite search-and-rescue operations around the world. Exactly 20 minutes later, a low-earth orbiting satellite picked up the signal, and by 2:29 p.m. it had calculated a position for the EPIRB using Doppler shift. That information was sent on to the Mission Control Center in Brazil.

"I don't know what happened to it from there," says Maddock.

Brazil's First Naval District in Rio de Janeiro, which coordinated the rescue operation, told reporters it wasn't notified of the distress alert until 9 p.m. The district's public affairs officer did not respond to two e-mails asking what happened overnight, but Maj. Denis McGuire, officer in charge of the Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Halifax, Nova Scotia, says his office received a call from the Brazil navy at 7:15 the next morning, Feb. 18. "They advised us they had an EPIRB alert," he says.

Concordia is registered in Barbados, so the Brazilians would have traced the EPIRB's owner through the International Beacon Registration Database instead of Canada's national EPIRB registry. McGuire says the Brazilians had the name of the vessel and the operator - West Island College International in Lunenburg - and asked JRCC in Halifax to contact the school. McGuire suspected there might be a language problem. He says his office reached school authorities about 8:30 a.m. McCarthy says the school then tried to contact the ship by satellite phone and e-mail and "got absolutely no response."

The rafts were rugged New Zealand-manufactured RFDs - with canopies - that had been stored in canisters on the side of the deck that was still above the surface.

It wasn't until 5 o'clock that afternoon that the Brazilians dispatched an air force plane to find the EPIRB. (They already had its location.) The plane spotted three of the rafts three hours later. The navy then diverted two merchant vessels, the Philippine-flagged Hokuetsu Delight and Cayman Islands-flagged Crystal Pioneer, which reached the survivors after midnight.

Rescue operations didn't commence until shortly after dawn. "It's the ship's master's call when to do the rescue," says Benjamin Strong, spokesman for Amver, the organization that recruits merchant ships to assist in rescues at sea.

The ships were positioned so the rafts were in their lee, and crews lowered embarkation ladders so survivors could board from the rafts, says Strong.


The Barbados Maritime Ship Registry, headquartered in London, is investigating the sinking. "Our interest is focused on witness statements providing us with an insight into the situation on board prior to the event, the situation on board during the event, and lastly the circumstances surrounding the successful rescuing of all persons on board," says C.D. Sawyer, the registry's principal registrar, in an e-mail.

On March 3, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada decided to open its own investigation, focusing on factors contributing to the sinking. Some expert observers are hoping that investigation will look closely at the ship's stability. Built in 1992 in Szczecin, Poland, at the Colod Co. Ltd. yard, the steel-hulled Concordia was designed to the Lloyds Registry 100 A1 yacht classification, built under Lloyds supervision and inspected annually by Lloyds, McCarthy says.

A teacher aboard Concordia receives an emotional welcome home at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

"There is really no international agreement on a stability standard for sailing ships," says naval architect Roger Long of Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Long has designed a number of oceangoing research vessels, including the Sea Education Association's sailing ship, Corwith Cramer. He was the principal researcher and co-author of papers used to develop Coast Guard stability regulations for school vessels in the 1980s and was an expert witness for the British government in the inquiry into the 1984 capsize of the school ship Marques in a gale during a tall-ship race from Bermuda to Halifax. Nineteen of 28 crew died in that tragedy.

Long is wary of jumping to the conclusion that Concordia sank because it got caught in a microburst. He says she should have been stable enough to recover from a knockdown beyond 90 degrees. If she wasn't, that's a problem. If she was stable enough, then why didn't she recover? That's grist for investigators, too.

The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail reported March 2 that Classes Afloat founder and chairman Terry Davies says the ship underwent a stability test during construction that showed she could recover from a 110-degree knockdown.

Long acknowledges that there are "events" at sea that almost no ship can survive. But from what he has read so far of the captain's accounts of the incident, Long says it didn't appear as if the violent wind that knocked Concordia down was sustained - in other words, it didn't pin the ship down. "I would have expected [Concordia] to have come back up again," he says.

Students enrolled in Class Afloat's 2010 spring semester-at-sea were scheduled to sail for five months and visit Recife, Montevideo, Tristan da Cunha, Cape Town (South Africa), Walvis Bay (Namibia), St. Helena, Georgetown (Ascension Island), Fernando de Noronha (Brazil), Port of Spain (Trinidad), Hamilton (Bermuda), and back to Lunenburg. Cost for a semester-at-sea is $27,700.

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.