Shipwrecked students survived on rainwater—and Disney songs
Photo by Tom Henheffer
Carrying a fluffy pink blanket and wearing a gigantic smile, Shelley Piller was up long before dawn, waiting on an empty concourse at Toronto’s Pearson airport for her daughter Elysha to return home.
“I’m going to cover her in this blanket and I’m going to take her home, and give her a bath and feed her as much as I can possibly feed her.”
Elysha was one of 48 students on the S.V. Concordia, a sailing ship that doubled as a travelling high school and university. A microburst, a sudden massive gust of wind, toppled the three-masted boat off the coast of Brazil late last Thursday evening. It sank in minutes, leaving every soul on board to fight for survival in leaky life rafts for two days and nights.
“We’re just so happy that they’re all okay. It’s a miracle,” says Piller.
After pulling each other from flooded classrooms and cutting the life rafts free, the students and crew were forced to bail constantly to keep shin-deep water from sinking their small boats. As they fought to collect rainwater and survive on rations, many became sick from dehydration, but they managed to keep their spirits high by singing Disney songs.
“There were low points and high points,” says Mark Sinker, the ship’s history and English teacher. “When there was water in the rafts and people were shivering, morale was very low. But overall I think people kept their spirits up.”
Piller, her husband Tony, and three sons, Lucas, Sam and Trevor, stood waiting, wearing their scarves and winter coats, with sleepy grins and hands in their pockets. A few other families were scattered around the airport, holding coffee and sitting at shops with metal gates still drawn shut.
Brent Tripp waited for his brother Jamie, a world traveller who was working as a crewman on the Concordia. Early Friday morning Brent got a call from his mother—at first all he could make out was the word “sink.” He was always afraid something would happen to Jamie, and thought the worst might have finally happened. Eventually his mother told him everything was okay, and his brother called Sunday morning.
“I pick up the phone and there was a quick delay, then ‘hey brother’ came across” says Tripp, his voice quivering slightly. “Both of us had a huge little breakdown.” He added that although he knew his brother was safe physically, it was worrisome to think what psychological toll the accident might have taken. “The next thing we went into was Olympic men’s hockey. So it was kind of nice to know that my brother, the guy that I love so much, he was still there.”
He said he plans to take it easy once they’re reunited.
“I would just like nothing more then to cram in the back seat of our little four door car and just take him to a little restaurant, buy him some lunch and have a beer.”
As the minutes ticked by the concourse started to become a hub of activity. Alumni from previous voyages arrived, holding bristol board signs declaring “Welcome Home Floaties” and “S.V. Concordia Forever.” Dozens of reporters began rushing back and forth. The families were ushered into a secure area, and a mob of camera’s surrounded the door. Cheering could be heard from inside. Emboldened with the spirit their travelling school was meant to instill, the alumni sat in front of reporters, forcing them to back up about 10 steps so they would have room to greet their friends.
In the end, the parents and children decided not to meet with the media, and went out through side gates. But Nigel McCarthy, CEO of the Class Afloat program, did eventually address the crowd.
“Today is a day of celebration,” he said. “There’s been lots of tears and there’s been lots of joy. There have been children jumping up into their parents’ arms. It’s a beautiful day.”