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A group of Calgary students who survived the sinking of their floating classroom tallship the Concordia, try on their life vests on board an airport shuttle bus after landing at Pearson airport in Toronto, February 22, 2010. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail)
A group of Calgary students who survived the sinking of their floating classroom tallship the Concordia, try on their life vests on board an airport shuttle bus after landing at Pearson airport in Toronto, February 22, 2010. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail)

Shipwreck survivors arrive home Add to ...

The Canadian students whose tall ship sank last week are finally home.

Students, teachers and crew members - some carrying orange life preservers as souvenirs - arrived to the open arms of their emotional families at Toronto's Pearson airport early Monday.

Ruth McArthur said the first thing she wanted to do was "eat my mom's banana chocolate chip muffins".

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Wearing a thin sweater, shorts and yellow flip flops, the biology teacher said the group passed nearly two days in life rafts after their ship capsized off Brazil last week by running through a checklist of tasks, including acting as lookouts, bailing out the rafts, collecting rainwater and monitoring each other's well-being.

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"We made schedules and knew our responsibilities and everyone just worked really well together. And we knew there was going to be an end to it, we just didn't know when," Ms. McArthur said, her relieved mother standing beside her.

The group also sang Disney songs, including Hakuna Matata. "But I think I was throwing up then so I didn't participate," said Ms. McArthur, who is from Brampton, Ont.

The group's floating classroom, the SV Concordia, sank in rough seas on Wednesday off the coast of Brazil. The 64 survivors spent some 40 hours clinging to life rafts before they were rescued by navy and merchant vessels.

Anxious parents arrived at the airport Monday well ahead of the group's 5:45 a.m. arrival. Security staff sequestered the relatives for private reunions with their children and many slipped out of the airport away from the media glare.

"There's been lots of tears and there's been lots of joy and there have been children jumping up into their parents' arms and it's a beautiful day," said school CEO Nigel McCarthy.

Mark Sinker, a history and English teacher, said the students were in good spirits on the plane ride back to Canada.

"They're very proud of themselves. I mean, they worked together, they really demonstrated excellent teamwork and leadership," he said.

During the time the group awaited rescue, however, Mr. Sinker said: "There were low points and high points."

Asked to elaborate on the most challenging times, he said: "I think certainly when there was water in the rafts and people were shivering. So morale was very low. But overall I think people kept their spirits up."

Mr. Sinker also said the long wait for help was difficult. "There were times when people were sort of wondering what was going on," he said.

In addition to family members, several young alumni of the SV Concordia greeted survivors with homemade "Welcome Home" signs .

There were 48 students on board the three-masted vessel - 42 were from Canada, while others hail from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Europe and the West Indies.

The ship 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 SV Concordia is part of Lunenburg, N.S.-based West Island College International's Class Afloat program.

The students and crew first reached dry land in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday with stories of a freak vertical downdraft that capsized the tall ship in seconds, giving them just minutes to take to the lifeboats.

Natasha Carruthers-Wood, a Vancouver student who turned 18 at sea earlier this month, scrambled out of the sinking vessel and into a lifeboat only to be knocked out of the rescue craft when it was nearly upended by a big wave and a flag pole struck her in the chest.

With the weight of the lifeboat on top of her, the seal of her survival suit broke and heavy water penetrated her suit, and the young woman thought she was going to drown, her father Martin Wood recounted in a telephone interview Sunday.

"She had the weight of the boat on her, pushing her under, and then the waves let up and the boat rolled back and she was able to get back up to the surface but in that moment, she said there was a black screen in front of her that said 'You are drowning,'" a shaken Mr. Wood recalled.

David Aftergood flew in from Calgary to greet his 16-year-old daughter Olivia, a Grade 11 student who had never been at sea before she stepped aboard the Concordia a little over a week ago.

He spoke to his daughter by phone just before she boarded the plane. "She certainly sounded strong and determined, but I also think she was scared, shocked and bewildered."

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