Student tells harrowing tale of the high seas

Erica Trimble remembers holding onto the helm of the SV Concordia just before it sank. Then the Yukon student jumped into a life raft with her fellow shipmates and she didn't look back.

Erica Trimble remembers holding onto the helm of the SV Concordia just before it sank.

Then the Yukon student jumped into a life raft with her fellow shipmates and she didn’t look back.

“I was so terrified and scared and worried,” she said.

“I didn’t like the thought that my home for six months was sinking, it was too upsetting.”

And that was only the beginning.

For the next 38 hours Trimble would be tossed about on the Atlantic Ocean, 500 kilometres off the coast of Brazil, until she and her classmates were rescued by the Brazilian navy.

Seventeen-year-old Trimble was one of 48 students aboard the SV Concordia on a 10-month program known as Class Afloat.

The ship, owned by Nova Scotia’s West Island College International, was about half-way through their journey, having already visited parts of Europe, Africa and South America.

The students, along with 16 teachers and crew members, were headed to Montevideo, Uruguay when they encountered a sea squall last Wednesday, around 2 p.m.

That’s when a horizontal wind flattened the storm sails, the “five fighting sails,” on their 57-metre craft.

Normally, the sails would dump the wind and the hull of the ship would pop right back up. But at that exact second, a microburst – a direct vertical draft of wind – pinned the sails downward on its port side.

It never made it back up again.

Trimble was in the middle of a history class in the ship’s mess hall when it happened.

“Laptops and books and papers were flying everywhere as the ship fell down,” she said.

It was then that the students got a chance to put their school work into practice.

“At every port we stopped at we had done abandon-ship training, fire drills and man overboard rescue. It was part of our school work,” said Trimble.

“So we were ready and prepared when it happened.”

Trimble was one of the first people to grab a “Mustang suit”- a special storm suit that covers everything except for a person’s hands and face – and jump into one of five life rafts that had immediately inflated as soon as the ship hit the water.

She stood in her lifeboat giving hugs to each person who jumped in with her.

“I was saying whatever I could to comfort them,” she said.

It was her friend David’s birthday. To celebrate the occasion, the ship’s cook had been baking brownies for him just before the boat went down.

“As we were drifting away from the ship all we could smell were brownies,” she said laughing.

It was a cruel reminder of what Trimble and her shipmates had been forced to leave behind.

A pair of shorts, a tank top and a waterproof camera was all that Trimble had with her when the ship went down.

The lifeboats, however, were equipped with emergency stores of water and dehydrated food.

No one ate the food, saving it for “when they really needed it,” said Trimble.

She spent much of her time on the life raft seasick. “It was so bad that I would take a seasickness pill then throw it up 15 minutes later,” she said.

“I hardly slept. I would pass out for a little bit then we would hit a wave and I’d wake up again.”

It was then, while severely dehydrated and weak, that Trimble thought she wouldn’t make it.

“I just thought my body was going to just shut down; it was really scary,” she said.

“But I pulled through.”

During the night, Trimble’s life raft, with 17 students, one teacher and two crew members, drifted so far away from the other boats that she could hardly see them bobbing on the horizon.

Trimble had no idea if everyone on the other four rafts were safe.

To pass the time, people in her life raft sang songs while bailing water.

For about 24 hours they didn’t see anyone.

However, they knew a distress signal had been sent to Nova Scotia from an emergency beacon that was set off when the ship went down.

It wasn’t until early Thursday evening that the students spotted a plane.

The Brazilian navy aircraft tipped its wings on the horizon and flashed its landing lights before leaving the scene.

Everyone but Trimble thought they had hadn’t been seen.

By sheer chance, Trimble had been studying her father’s pilot manual the day before and knew it was a signal from the pilot that they had been spotted.

“Everyone else was like, ‘I don’t know if he’s seen us, I don’t know if he’s seen us.’ But I was like, ‘No, trust me, he has, I promise. I promise with my life.’”

That’s when the Brazilian authorities diverted two nearby merchant ships, the Crystal Pioneer and the Hokuetso Delight, to pluck the students from their rafts.

The Filipino crew of the Crystal Pioneer greeted the tired students with blankets, clothes and coffee.

The Brazilian navy met the ships and helicoptered some of the students onto their own boat, while the remaining students were taken by merchant ship to Rio de Janeiro.

That’s when West Island College sent a report to parents that the students had been rescued.

“I remember Sidney Crosby had just scored the winning goal of the hockey game against Switzerland when we got the message,” said Erica’s father, Richard.

“But the message was that four life rafts and a safety boat had been rescued and that only some people had been aboard.

“It was the word ‘some;’ it was that part that got me, since we had no idea if Erica was safe.”

It was a sleepless night for Trimble’s parents. Only at 3 a.m. did they receive word that their daughter was safe.

Early Friday morning the students arrived in Rio de Janeiro.

As happy as they were to be on land, the crew couldn’t believe how long it took to get rescued.

“We were pretty ticked off actually,” said Erica.

“My first mate, Kim, the first question he asked when he got on land was, ‘Why did it take you 42 hours to rescue us?’”

Trimble’s parents were asking the same question.

But after knowing that their daughter was safe, the rest just seemed like details.

Tuesday, Trimble’s parents met her at the airport in Calgary on her way back from Brazil.

She was wearing a pair of flip flops and basketball shorts that one of the crew members on the Crystal Pioneer gave to her.

Trimble will spend the next week and a half in Whitehorse before flying east to Lunenburg to complete the rest of her Grade 12 semester on land.

Her class will no longer get the chance to visit parts of Africa or the Caribbean Islands now that their ship has sunk.

But, with a once-in a lifetime adventure behind her, Trimble doesn’t seem to mind.

Contact Vivian Belik at vivianb@yukon-news.com

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