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Tall ship passed stability testing, owners say

The S.V. Concordia, from the website of West Island College International

Class Afloat, owners of the tall ship Concordia that sank after failing to recover from a freak wind gust, say the 18-year-old Polish-built vessel was designed and tested to survive just that sort of knockdown.

Concordia's survivors say a powerful blast of wind knocked the 60-metre vessel so far over on its side that its masts and sails were lying on the surface of the South Atlantic Ocean. The ship failed to right itself, capsizing and sinking within 20 minutes last month 550 kilometres off the coast of Brazil.

In the most complete response yet to suggestions that a properly designed and handled ship should have survived such a knockdown, Terry Davies, the founder and chairman of Class Afloat, said the ship had undergone stability testing and was more than capable of recovering from a 90-degree knockdown.

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"Concordia has righting characteristics that would bring her back from 110 degrees," Mr. Davies said in an e-mailed response yesterday to questions about the testing and inspection of the sail-training ship, which sank so fast its crew members were unable to send a distress call.

On its website, Class Afloat claims Concordia "meets the highest standards for sailing-school vessels." It states that Concordia had "been successfully inspected by the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard and hundreds of other port and state-controlled authorities." Such inspections do not necessarily pertain to a ship's stability, however. In many cases, inspectors are checking for such things as whether a ship is carrying the necessary documents and has sufficient life jackets.

In his e-mail, Mr. Davies made clear that because the Concordia was not registered in the United States, it was not necessary for it to meet U.S. Coast Guard standards. "Compliance with USCG standards for SSV's [sailing-school vessels]was not a compliance standard for the Concordia," he wrote. "She has never been flagged in the United States nor subject to USCG SSV compliance."

Despite Class Afloat's apparent "Canadian-ness" - including emblazoning the ship's sails with large Maple Leafs - Concordia was registered, or "flagged," in Barbados. Registering in states like Barbados, known for their relaxed crew requirements, allows ship owners to hire internationally from the relatively small pool of sailors capable of handling large sailing vessels in the open ocean, Mr. Davies said. Canadian-flagged vessels must have Canadian crews.

Only a handful of nations - notably the United States, Britain and Australia - have stringent safety regulations pertaining specifically to ocean-going sailing-school vessels. "I would have expected a U.S. Coast Guard-certificated sailing-school vessel to have righted itself," said Roger Long, an internationally recognized expert on the stability of large sailing vessels.

Mr. Long has called for Class Afloat to make public the stability testing data for Concordia, "not primarily to establish fault or blame," but in the interest of averting potential future sinkings. If it turns out that the Concordia met U.S. or British stability standards, he said, it would not be "just another vessel that fell through the hole in the safety net, but a vital data point in furthering our understanding of large-sailing-vessel safety."

Mr. Davies said the Concordia had undergone stability testing - usually done by loading a heavy weight on one side of a vessel, calculating how much the ship tips or heels and extrapolating its "righting" ability. He provided no details as to the testing, except to say that it was done when the ship was built.

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All 64 crew and students onboard the Concordia were saved after spending two nights in life rafts.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More


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