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Safety Training Helped Canadian Students Aboard Sinking Ship

The relief was evident in the voice of one of the 64 people who survived the sinking of a Canadian sailing ship in rough seas off Brazil when she finally saw dry land Saturday.

A statue that is one of Rio de Janeiro’s most visible symbols could be clearly seen by Ruth McArthur, who was standing on the deck of the merchant ship that rescued her.

“We’re excited, we can see land and the big Jesus with his arms open,” McArthur, 23, from Brampton, Ont., said in an interview from aboard the Philippine-flagged Hokuetsu Delight, as it sat in waters just outside the Brazilian city Saturday morning.

McArthur, who was a staff member aboard the SV Concordia, said she was teaching a biology class Wednesday when it became apparent that the ship was in serious trouble.

She said her students quickly dressed in immersion suits and all were able to get into life rafts as the vessel quickly rolled onto its side.

“It was pretty intense, but the students and the whole crew were very focused and they all did an excellent job by helping and supporting each other,” said McArthur.

She said everyone remained calm and knew “what they had to do and where they needed to be.”

“Instinctively the students and the crew knew what to do . . . and I think that’s one of the reasons we were all able to get out of there safely.”

McArthur said it wasn’t very long before the life rafts moved away from the ship and “we were able to watch it go down.”

“We then organized ourselves and made sure we had watches (lookouts) and water,” she said. “We collected rain water as the rain fell around us and just prepared for a long stay in the life raft.”

McArthur said although there were low points during the hours drifting at sea, morale remained high. She said everyone remained confident they would be found because of the frequency of shipping traffic in the area.

After clinging to the rafts for up to 40 hours they were plucked from the ocean early Friday by merchant ships.

McArthur, said it was too early to convey everything she was feeling after such a close brush with disaster.

“I’m still struggling to put that into actual words . . . I’m taking this time on board to try to figure that out so that when I go home I can express that to my family,” she said. “It was very challenging to see the place where you woke up every day just go down in such a short period of time.”

Meanwhile, at least 12 of the rescued docked earlier in Rio on a Brazilian navy ship.

The three-masted sailing vessel was on a five-month voyage that allows students in grades 11 and 12 and the first year of college to study while sailing around the world.

The ship’s captain confirmed to The Associated Press that the vessel sank Wednesday – a full day earlier than previously reported.

Capt. William Curry said although the Concordia’s crew had prepared the day before for what they anticipated would be rough weather, the ship suddenly keeled.

Curry, who was below deck at the time, said it immediately keeled again and he knew the vessel was in great danger.

He said when that happened the entire surface area of the ship’s sails were exposed to the powerful wind and within 15 seconds the boat was lying on its side and beginning to sink. Curry said it slipped beneath the waves 30 minutes later.

The ship’s radio equipment was submerged and was unusable, but Curry said an emergency beacon was automatically released into the water.

Sixteen-year-old student Lauren Unsworth told reporters that the first sign of rescue didn’t occur until about 30 hours later when a search plane was spotted.

The Brazilian navy said the distress signal was picked up about 5 p.m. Thursday, and an air force plane later spotted life rafts in waters about 500 kilometres from Rio.

Forty-eight of those on the vessel were students, according to officials with West Island College International of Lunenburg, N.S., which operates the Class Afloat program.

Of that number 42 were from Canada, while others hail from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Europe and the West Indies.

School CEO Nigel McCarthy said Saturday that he still hadn’t had a chance to talk to the ship’s captain or any of the students.

But he said two officials from the school were on their way to Rio to gather information from those who were on board the vessel.

“We’re in touch with a parent who is down there who has organized the reception and transfer to a hotel and with the Department of Foreign Affairs and those who are organizing the repatriation of the children and the rest,” said McCarthy.

School officials said students would likely begin flying home to be reunited with their families as early as Sunday.

With files from the Associated Press