Thanks be to God for their safe return

Published May 1, 2010

Rescued: Class Afloat students comfort each other.

In February, dozens of students spent almost two days in lifeboats after their floating school sank off the coast of Brazil. When they returned to Nova Scotia, Lunenburg residents welcomed them with a special ecumenical celebration.

When the tall ship S.V. Concordia sent out a distress signal on Feb. 18, the 64 people aboard had precious little time to do anything but don safety suits before setting off in life rafts.

The 48 students, eight teachers and eight crew members from the Class Afloat school program had left Recife, Brazil, only 10 days before. 
Then their ship capsized, taking all of their possessions: passports, clothes and schoolwork. They spent a harrowing 40 hours bailing water out of the rafts and bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean before being rescued by merchant vessels.

“Big  waves in a small, tiny raft is not fun,” said one student, Drake Hicks, in an interview with CBC News. “There were a lot of people who were throwing up a lot. It was definitely scary. We were all dehydrated, [had] blurred vision, and then they harnessed us in and pulled us up.”

While investigations by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada and Barbados Maritime (where the Concordia was flagged) are ongoing, it is believed that a microburst, a sudden, intense downdraft of wind, caused the vessel to be knocked on its side before sinking.

Although the students enrolled in the Class Afloat program come from all over Canada and abroad, Lunenburg, N.S., is home base for the floating school and the S.V. Concordia, its main sailing vessel. When the maritime community-no stranger to seafaring tragedies-heard that all aboard had been rescued, Lunenburg residents knew they had to do two things: give thanks and celebrate.

“The community wanted to mark the rescue and return of these young people in a significant way,” said the Rev. Michael Mitchell, rector of St. John’s Anglican Church in Lunenburg. Besides being a national historic site (established in 1753, it is the second oldest Anglican church in Canada), St. John’s hosts the annual Class Afloat graduation ceremonies.

The Anglican parish joined with its Lutheran, Roman Catholic and United Church counterparts to create a service of thanksgiving to welcome home the students.  The service was held March 14 at Zion Lutheran Church, due to its proximity to Lunenburg Academy, the school that houses the Class Afloat program and the location for the post-worship reception.

Rev. Vivian Roberts, pastor at Zion, said the service was designed to enable all the students to feel comfortable; young people from the community were involved in the planning.

“We took great pains so it didn’t feel or look too churchy,” she said. “We were very conscious that we were drawing a congregation from various backgrounds, so we wanted to make sure it was very ecumenical.”

While there were scripture readings, there was no sermon or preaching, Mitchell added. “It was a service of music, prayer and thanksgiving. The church was almost full with people from the school, parents, kids, staff and the community. It was a time to say thanks to God for their safe return.”

Music during the service included a solo by Mitchell, who sang a contemporary hymn entitled Safety Harbor (see lyrics, below). The song is sung annually at Lunenburg’s seamen’s memorial service to acknowledge those who were lost at sea over the years.

“The meaning behind the song is that no matter what happens, the Lord sees us safely into harbour,” explained Roberts. “As we planned this service, we wanted to acknowledge that everyone who went down on the Concordia returned home safely, returned safely to harbour, by an act of God.”

Kate Knight, head of the Class Afloat school, said the thanksgiving service made the students, many of whom were new to Lunenburg (they had just begun their semester), feel as if they had a home-away-from-home there.

“It was wonderful to see the different churches and the community come together and be able to share in the celebration,” said Knight.

Since Lunenburg is a seafaring community, people often come together to mourn a loss and bring closure to the community for a vessel or a group of people who’ve been lost, pointed out Knight. “To be able to celebrate life was pretty special. I know we really appreciated it.”

One parent was impressed with the Lunenburg welcome, particularly the meals provided at St. John’s. “My hotel room alone was quite expensive, because I stayed for four days,” said Doris Smith, an Anglican who travelled from Oliver, B.C., to see her daughter, Sarah, one of the students rescued from the Concordia. “Every little bit helped.”   Ω


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