Nova Scotia

Captain of sinking ship on how he kept his cool as vessel filled with water

A sailing trip down south ended before it really began as the schooner started to take on water off the coast of Nova Scotia.

The Sorca was 287 km off Halifax when it started sinking with 4 crew members on board

The Sorca would have been part of the tall-ship festivities in Nova Scotia if it hadn't sunk in late May. (Rick Welsford)

If you're looking for calm under pressure look no further than Rick Welsford — the captain of the schooner Sorca. 

When water started to come up through his vessel's floorboards on Saturday, he didn't panic.

As the Sorca's engine room flooded, he kept his cool.

When the ship's lighting cut out leaving him and his three-person crew stranded in the dark on a sinking ship, Welsford wasn't worried. 

"We had the latest technology on Sorca for communicating, we had brand new life-rafts, we had all the safety equipment, the flares worked," Welsford recalled. 

"Everything was working the way it's supposed to and it never crossed my mind that there was going to be a bad outcome."     

Crew member noticed water

The ship was about 287 kilometres southeast of Halifax when it started to take on water.

The Sorca and its crew had been on their way to Bermuda from Lunenburg, N.S., where the schooner was built in 1978. But after days of being hammered by heavy swells, Welsford decided to turn back toward Lunenburg.

It was on the return voyage that a crew member noticed water accumulating under the floorboards. 

Sent out an SOS 

Welsford, who said there was no obvious damage that led to the leak, sent out an SOS. The military's Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax responded, as did the Canadian Coast Guard.

A coast guard ship, a Hercules aircraft and a Cormorant helicopter were all dispatched, but it would take them hours to arrive. 

All the while the Sorca was still sinking.

The Sorca was on its way to Bermuda from Lunenburg. (Taxiarchos228)

"Beyond the obvious stress, it was a very controlled conversation," said Welsford. 

"We had long talks about the what ifs. What if we finally have to deploy the life-raft?... Having had some training in that, I could walk through the scenario with everybody and that was helpful." 

A light in the dark

The life-raft didn't need to be used though. One of Welsford's crew mates spotted a light in the distance — what turned out to be a cargo ship on its way to New Orleans — and set off a flare. 

"After a little while we still couldn't tell whether it was coming our way so we set a second flare off, and sure enough they lit up all their floodlights on the cargo vessel to acknowledge that they had seen us," said Welsford.

A Cormorant helicopter, like this one, was used to lift Welsford and his crew off the cargo ship. (Cpl. Darcy Lefebvre/RCAF)

The cargo ship diverted its course and picked up Welsford and his crew, all of whom were uninjured. 

They were given a meal and cabins were also set aside in the event the stranded crew members needed to stay on board until New Orleans.

A Cormorant helicopter, however, arrived Sunday morning to transport Welsford and the crew to the Halifax airport.

'Don't say thank you; it's almost bad luck'

The last they saw of the Sorca, it was still partially above water but slipping beneath the waves. 

Welsford said he made sure to thank the cargo ship's captain before they parted and was given a humble response.

"He said to me, 'You don't thank me for doing these things. You're a mariner and I'm a mariner and I would expect the same from you,'" said Welsford.

"He said, 'Don't say thank you; it's almost bad luck.'"

With files from Maritime Noon