Saturday, November 24, 2007

Passengers, Crew, Safe After Canadian-Owned Cruise Ship Hits Ice In Antarctic

A group of tourists, including 12 Canadians, spent up to six hours in lifeboats in the frigid waters off Antarctica after their cruise ship hit ice and started sinking in the middle of the night. All 154 passengers and crew aboard the MV Explorer, owned by a Toronto-based company, were rescued safely by the Norwegian cruise liner Nordnorge, which responded to a distress call. They were to spend the night at a military base in Chile before being flown home, officials said Friday. Despite being in lifeboats for hours in rough waters, none of the passengers suffered hypothermia, said Arnvid Hansen, captain of the Nordnorge. "The passengers are absolutely fine," Susan Hayes of G.A.P. Adventures, owner of the Explorer, said in an interview. "They're all accounted for. No injuries whatsoever." A Chilean ornithologist identified as Paola Palavecino was quoted in an Argentine media report as saying she and others aboard went into the lifeboats before dawn and endured subfreezing temperatures for a few hours until they were picked up about 6 a.m. EST. "The ship took on water quickly," she was quoted by the Argentine news agency Diarios y Noticias as saying in a call from the Nordnorge. The 75-metre-long Explorer was carrying 91 passengers, nine expedition staff members and a crew of 54. It was completing an ecological tour of Antarctica when the accident took place around midnight Eastern time Friday about 850 kilometres southeast of Ushuaia, the southernmost Argentine city. "The ship ran into some ice. It was submerged ice and the result was a hole about the size of a fist in the side of the hull so it began taking on water ... but quite slowly," Hayes said. The Chilean navy said in a release that water began gathering in the ship's machine room and the captain ordered passengers to abandon ship about 90 minutes after the first call. They and the crew took to eight semi-rigid lifeboats and four life rafts, with the captain leaving the ship later. Hayes called the evacuation process "calm" and said pumps aboard the Explorer were able to deal with incoming water until the Nordnorge arrived. After the rescue, the survivors arrived at Fildes Peninsula, west of King George Island, at 1:20 p.m. local time. "No one was hurt or suffered any major injury," said Felipe Gracia, a Chilean navy commander with the Coast Guard. The Explorer, meanwhile, was in danger of sinking, but G.A.P Adventures hadn't given up hope on it yet, Hayes said. "We're quite hopeful: There's a passionate group of people who work here who are very committed to this ship, so we have not given up." Hours after the pre-dawn accident near Antarctica's South Shetland Islands, Chilean aerial photographs showed the ship listing heavily, its white superstructure and red hull starkly visible against the grey, choppy waters and overcast skies. Besides the 12 Canadians, the passengers and staff included 24 Britons, 17 Dutch, 14 Americans and 10 Australians. There were also four people aboard from Ireland, four Swiss, three Danes, two from Hong Kong, two Argentines, two Belgians, one Chinese national, one French national, one German, one Japanese, one Colombian and one Swede. Officials at the Fildes Peninsulda port authority said the passengers had started disembarking from the Nordnorge in late afternoon, after being anchored at the bay since 1:20 p.m. local time. "They're going to spend the night here waiting for the Chilean air force plane from Punta Arena which will take them inland," a Chilean port official said. "There is very bad visibility and some wind." Chilean authorities were arranging travel to Punta Arenas from the base. Passengers were to be flown to Punta Areas, the closest city, on Saturday, and then home. But until the weather improved, there was no point rushing people off the Nordnorge, Gracia said. "Under those conditions airplanes cannot land either." G.A.P. Adventures provides eco-friendly excursions with an environmental focus. The Explorer was in the midst of a 19-day circuit of Antarctica and the Falkland Islands that allowed passengers to observe penguins, whales, and other forms of local wildlife. Hayes said the Explorer, built in Finland in 1969, sails from Antarctica up to Norway every year and is "absolutely equipped for the high seas." "It has an impressive polar record. It may be small but it's mighty," she added. The company is still investigating the accident, and said navigating Antarctica's icy waters is never foolproof. "You've got instruments to detect, but instruments aren't perfect," Hayes said. "It's not something we ever would have anticipated."
Facts on the cruise ship The Explorer and the rescue of its passengers after it struck ice off Antarctica.

Owner - Toronto-based G.A.P. Adventures, since 2004.

Registry - Monrovia, Liberia.

Built - 1969, Nystad, Finland.

Refurbished - 2004.

Length - 75 metres.

Weight - 2,603 tonnes.

Carrying - 91 passengers (including 12 Canadians), 54 crew, nine expedition staff members.

Purpose - 19-day, eco-friendly excursion of Antarctica and the Falkland Islands.

Problem - Struck submerged ice off Antarctica and began taking on water.

Location - 850 kilometres southeast of Ushuaia, southernmost Argentine city.

Distress call - Issued at 12:24 a.m. Friday.

Evacuation - 90 minutes after distress call.

Rescue - Norwegian cruise liner Nordnorge picks up passengers and crew after they spend more than five hours in lifeboats.

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