Violent downdraft blamed in sinking of Canadian sailing ship, all 64 saved

A Canadian school sailing ship with 64 people aboard capsized and sank off Brazil, probably due to an unexpected and extremely violent downward blast of air.

All 64 occupants of Concordia were rescued by good Samaritan commercial ships following the Feb. 17 incident. The 188-foot vessel sank 300 nm southeast of Rio de Janeiro after being laid down on its side with its masts in the water. The captain reported that the vessel tilted 100° in 15 seconds.

Concordia, a Canadian-based school sailing vessel, was lost off Brazil. The crew attributed the rapid capsizing and sinking to a possible microburst. Good Samaritan commercial vessels rescued all of those aboard. (photo courtesy West Island College Class Afloat)

The Lunenburg, Nova Scotia-based ship was the principal sailing vessel for West Island College International’s Class Afloat program. The college and Concordia crew attributed the capsizing to a microburst phenomenon. There was no chance to right the vessel, Concordia’s officers reported, and an abandon ship order was given.

There has been criticism of the Brazilian authorities’ response to the EPIRB signal. It was 24 hours after the sinking before Brazil sent search aircraft.

Kim Smith, the first officer of Concordia, told Professional Mariner that the length of time from receipt of the EPIRB signal to dispatching assistance by Brazil “was a breakdown in the global distress system.â€

Concordia was a steel-hulled, three-masted barquentine built by Colod of Szczecin, Poland, in 1992. It was on a voyage from Recife, Brazil, to Montevideo, Uruguay, when the violent wind knocked the ship over.

The capsizing was so swift, there was no time to relay a distress signal. It was only the signal from the vessel’s EPIRB that alerted authorities that Concordia was in trouble.

The captain later reported that his radio and satellite phone systems were submerged in a matter of seconds. As is customary, the communications equipment was installed in the highest part of the vessel because that’s usually the last area to go under. But in this case, it was the first portion of the ship to go under.

After the successful evacuation into life rafts, the survivors spent 40 hours drifting in the Atlantic Ocean before being rescued by merchant ships Crystal Pioneer and Hokuetsu Delight, the college said in a statement. The Brazilian navy subsequently transported them to Rio de Janeiro.

The school’s program offers lessons for high school and university students aboard a sailing ship while traveling to exotic locations around the world.

Nigel McCarthy, president and chief executive of Class Afloat, told Professional Mariner that the school was first informed of the distress signal from Concordia by the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Halifax at 0800 Atlantic time Feb. 18.

The JRCC referred questions about the sinking, search and rescue to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada in Ottawa. That office provided no further details.

Brazilian authorities said Concordia was not participating in its vessel marine traffic control system, so Brazil was not aware where the ship was. In addition, on reception of the EPIRB signal, officials could not get a reply from West Island College to confirm the location.

In the end, 24 hours after the EPIRB’s signal was sent, the Brazilian air force dispatched a plane to scan the area and notified merchant ships to see if they had contact with Concordia.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) and the maritime authority in Barbados, where Concordia was registered, will investigate the incident.

“The TSB decided to conduct a parallel investigation into this accident independently of the Barbadian investigation,†the TSB said in March. “The TSB made the decision to investigate because the scope and methodology used to uncover causes and contributing factors will likely be different than that of the Barbados authority. Meanwhile, in accordance with the provisions of international conventions, the TSB remains committed to providing assistance to the Barbados authority as it proceeds with its investigation.â€

By Professional Mariner Staff