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Rescued Class Afloat student vows to sail again

by Robert Hirtle

Lauren Unsworth joins her mom, Nancy, at the family summer home at Corkum's Island.
 Lauren Unsworth was supposed to be in Uruguay right now.

 Instead, she's at the family summer home at Corkums Island, just happy to be alive.

 The attractive 16 year old was in biology class on board the Class Afloat tall ship SV Concordia around 2:30 on the afternoon of February 17 when the vessel, and her world, suddenly took a turn for the worse.

 "I was in biology class, which luckily is in a building on deck. The boat started keeling a lot [but] we were fine because we had been in weather like that before. We thought it was kind of exciting," she recalls. "Then it came back up, keeled down again and it tipped, so the windows were covered in water, we could see it and we were just like, 'Oh my God.'"

 Ms Unsworth said their teacher immediately ordered everyone to get out of the cabin, "and the guys in [the class] pretty much carried the girls out, because we didn't have enough strength to get out because the door was the ceiling.

 "We got outside and were standing on the side of the boat. We got our immersion suits on as fast as we could, then we just had to get in the lifeboats and leave everything behind," she said. "I was one of the first people in the lifeboat and then the boat just started tipping more, it started turtling, then the rest of the people had to get on the side of the hull to get off because the superstructure was too slanted."

 At the time of the mishap, SV Concordia was not running under full sail.

 "We had the main and the mizzen reefed, and I think three square sails up," she said.

 Subsequent reports from the ship's crew indicated that the vessel was struck by a "micro burst," a brief period of particularly violent weather which caused her to keel and flip over.

 Ms Unsworth said that because she was inside and not on deck, she did not experience the anomaly.

 "It happened so quickly, it obviously was. When I got outside it was really, really windy and the waves were huge."

 Initially, she was one of only three people who were able to scramble into the first life raft before it began drifting away from the stricken vessel.

 "So we had to try and get back to the boat to get more people in our life raft, which took so much strength, but we finally got 20 people in our life raft, then we cut the lines and got away from the ship easily and quickly," she recalls, adding that she knows of no one who actually ended up in the water.

 That began what would turn out to be an arduous, 38-hours adrift in the South Atlantic for the 64 students, staff and crew who miraculously all made it to safety relatively unscathed.

 "It smelt really bad in the life raft and for the first part we were just sweating a lot so [the survival suit] would just stick to your body," she says. "Then at night it would get cold because there was a lot of water in our raft. If you were in the life raft laying down you were in water which was lowering your body temperature."

 Ms Unsworth says that during the entire ordeal, she never slept at all, choosing instead to stand watches. And, she prayed.

 "We all did. Hardly any one of us is religious, but it was like, 'Please, please, Lord,'" she says.

 To help pass the time and keep everyone's spirits up, her comrades in the other life rafts began to sing. However, that experiment was short lived for those in her boat.

 "We tried, but it kind of died down and then we'd all be really depressed," she says. "We didn't really do anything. We were just talking to our second mate a lot about what was going to happen and if we were ever going to get rescued and if he knew for sure that the EPIRB [Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon] went off. We were just bombarding him with questions."

 Fortunately, the life rafts were well equipped with plenty of food and water, as well as a sea anchor.

 "We had the basic survival needs, [but] we didn't have a compass which was really stupid. We would have liked to have one of those," she says.

 For the first day and night after the SV Concordia sank, the three life rafts remained close together. However, the next day Ms Unsworth's raft had drifted far enough away from the others that they could not see them anymore.

 "When we saw the airplane and we shot off our flare, we saw their flare as well, so we knew that they were close by, which gave us comfort."

 The merchant ship that eventually picked up Ms Unsworth and her mates from the SV Concordia carried a Filipino crew "who were the best thing ever.

 "They were amazing. The second we got on the ship, they started cooking for us, they did our laundry, they gave us their clothes. They were so gentlemanly and kind, such nice people," she says.

 Ms Unsworth's parents, Brad and Nancy, were in Luxembourg the morning of February 18 when they got the news via e-mail that there had been an emergency on board the ship.

 "We were pretty frantic," Mrs. Unsworth says. "About an hour later [Class Afloat head of school] Kate [Knight] called us to say that a plane had spotted three life rafts, but still we knew nothing more than that."

 Two hours later, however, they received another call from the school informing them that all 64 people who were aboard SV Concordia had been accounted for and were safe.

 "So, there was great joy. By Monday morning we were at the airport in Toronto in an airport full of parents, families and it was so joyous. It's hard to explain," Mrs. Unsworth says. "And I must say Class Afloat, all the team, have been so wonderful with their support systems."

 Ms Unsworth credits their rescue to the fact that the students were regularly required to carry out safety drills on the vessel, including fire, man overboard, medical emergency and, perhaps most importantly, abandon ship.

 "We did them all at least once a sail … so your instincts just really take over. You just do anything to get off, get out of there and help anyone who needs help," she says.

 Despite her brush with tragedy, Ms Unsworth insists her SV Concordia experience is not going to stop her from future tall-ship seafaring. Rather, it seems to have made her love of the ocean grow even stronger.

 "Just being out on the water and being on the open ocean is a magical experience and I definitely want to do it again," she says.

posted on 03/02/10
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