RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – When wind and rough seas drove the Canadian sailing ship carrying dozens of teenage students to lean precariously to one side, the captain figured it was just another day of sailing in rough weather.
When the boat immediately keeled again, he knew it was going down.
“The ship had gone from sailing upright to being on her side in the water in about 15 or 20 seconds,” William Curry said.
Just like that, a five-month academic dream cruise for 64 young students and crew ended in a mad scramble for life rafts as the SV Concordia was quickly sucked beneath the waves. Back on land Saturday, they recounted how fears of starvation and a lonely death far from land filled their heads during two nightmarish days adrift at sea.
Curry called it a miracle that everyone on board made it into rafts and survived after the three-masted Concordia apparently experienced a weather phenomenon known as a “microburst” – a sudden, violent downdraft of wind – that instantly crippled the vessel Wednesday.
The gust that knocked the ship on its side came so suddenly there was no time to radio for help before all communications equipment was submerged and ruined. So hope rested on a distress beacon that launched automatically when the vessel capsized.
“My biggest fear was that nobody knew we had sunk,” said 17-year-old Keaton Farwell, of Toronto. “We thought our signal had failed and nobody knew and it could be weeks before we were saved. The worst life-and-death thoughts were going through our heads, and everybody was panicking.”
After 30 hours in life rafts 300 miles off Brazil, hope arrived as “a light in the sky” – a Brazilian air force jet flying high overhead sent to search the area after the beacon was finally detected.
“When we saw the plane, we were crying because of happiness. We knew somebody was coming for us, we knew we weren’t going to die in a life raft,” Farwell said.
Brazil’s navy said the distress signal was first picked up about 5 p.m. Thursday, and an air force plane later spotted the rafts. Passing merchant ships plucked the castaways from the water, and by Saturday afternoon they were all back on land in Rio de Janeiro.