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SV Concordia under sail in Halifax in 2000.

The 64 survivors of the Canadian sailing vessel Concordia began to arrive at a military base in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday.

All the students and crew of the Nova Scotia-based vessel were rescued Friday after the tall ship capsized and sank off the Brazilian coast on Wednesday, CBC correspondent Connie Watson reported from the base.

The students and crew spent up to 40 hours in life-rafts amid strong winds and waves up to four metres high, she said after talking with the first dozen young women and crew to arrive in Brazil.

The girls, many wearing T-shirts with handwritten slogans, such as "I Survived," "Found," and "Thanks for Keeping Me Warm," were thrilled to be alive, Watson said. "Everybody's looking good, not too traumatized."

'We thought our signal had failed and nobody knew and it could be weeks before we were saved, and just the worst life-or-death thoughts are going through our heads.' —Keaton Farwell, student

Capt. William Curry said the vessel capsized about noon Wednesday after being caught in a rare "microburst" during a severe thunderstorm. The crew was prepared for gale-force winds, but the microburst, a sudden downdraft of air in a very small area, capsized the Concordia within 15 seconds.

"It's just bad luck to be in that little tiny patch of the ocean at that particular moment in time," he said. "They don't last long — it's just maybe a 10- or 15-minute event and then it's over.

"It is pretty devastating to a sailing vessel because it pins you down as opposed to letting you go."

The 57.5-metre steel vessel sank within 20 minutes, but all 48 students, eight teachers and eight crew were able to get into life-rafts. The inflatable boats were pinned under the water, so they had to use a kitchen knife to cut the straps while the vessel was sinking.

No panic

Teacher Ruth McArthur, 23, of Brampton, Ont., said the students quickly put on immersion suits and got into the rafts as the Concordia lay on its side. The students remained calm and knew "what they had to do and where they needed to be," she told The Canadian Press.

Student Lauren Unsworth, 16, said students were in biology class when the ship heeled once and then again. When the windows cracked, they knew it was time to abandon ship, she said, recalling the ordeal of being adrift for a day and a half.

"It was very crowded, very hot, but also very cold. It was weird temperatures," she said. "And we got into a few tiny squalls, so it was rough at times, and a lot of rain, but I guess it was good that we had the rain 'cause we got to save water, so we drank rainwater."

Drake Hicks, 18, described a similar experience. "We were in a 20-person raft with, I think, 22 people. We sat there a long time. We kept two people on watch, two people bailing water out of our raft," Hicks said. "It rained a lot so we would collect rainwater and drink rainwater basically and just keep lookout and just hope for the best."

Keaton Farwell, 17, of Toronto, said she was worried they wouldn't be found. "My biggest fear was that nobody knew we had sank. Like, we thought maybe our signal had failed," she said. "We were just thinking the worst.

"We thought our signal had failed and nobody knew and it could be weeks before we were saved, and just the worst life-or-death thoughts are going through our heads."

The Concordia sank about 550 kilometres southeast of Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian navy said. The search started Thursday after a distress signal from the ship was picked up at about 4 a.m., officials said.

The students, teachers and crew were located by a Brazilian military helicopter and picked up by merchant ships and Brazilian naval vessels.

Some of the young women students initially vowed never to sail again but they are already changing their minds, Watson reported. They bonded with others and "they'll never forget that," she said.

They're expected to fly back to Canada on Sunday, arriving in Toronto early Monday morning.

Relatives await word

Meanwhile, relatives anxiously waited to hear from their loved ones. Marie Braedley, of Truro, N.S., said she's been glued to her television and has only managed to get a few hours of sleep since she learned her daughter's floating classroom had sunk.

Kate Braedley, 24, a teacher aboard the ship, had been having the trip of a lifetime, crossing the Atlantic and docking in exotic ports, she said. Thinking about her daughter aboard a life-raft in the middle of the ocean was a nightmare, Braedley said.

Now that she knows she's safe, she's feeling better, but she said she still won't be able to sleep easy until her daughter is home. "Definitely feeling very much in limbo, and just can't wait to get her home — for how long, I don't know."

The students were part of the Class Afloat program run by West Island College International of Lunenburg, N.S. They left Canada in September to spend a semester at sea. When the Concordia sank, it was heading to Uruguay.

Kalin Mitchell, a meteorologist with CBC News, said microbursts are unpredictable downdrafts of air that can reach speeds exceeding 100 km/h and can cause damage similar to tornadoes.

"Generally speaking, microbursts often occur with the most severe thunderstorms and when those are occurring, there are already generally warnings, weather warnings in place — warnings of very strong wind gusts, frequent lightning strikes, as well as the possibilities of tornadoes." Microbursts are also known to cause plane crashes, Mitchell said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement thanking the Brazilian navy and merchant vessel crews.

With files from The Canadian Press