154 Flee Sinking Cruise Ship In The Antarctic
A small cruise ship with an imperfect security record was listing dangerously after it struck ice in Antarctic waters today, with 154 passengers and crew members evacuated by lifeboat, said the cruise operator and coast guard.
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Pictures from a Web cam on a rescue ship showed the small red and white ship – named the Explorer but known affectionately as “the little red ship” – listing dangerously to starboard in steely gray waters below a low sky, with clumps of ice looming in the distant background. Another photograph taken by a passenger on the rescue ship showed a flotilla of small lifeboats floating on the vast sea.
The vessel – which was taking tourist passengers on the route of the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton – sent out a distress signal at 5:24 a.m. GMT after it began to take in water through “a fist-sized hole,” said Dan Brown, a spokesman for G.A.P. Adventures, the Toronto-based tour operator that owns and operates the ship. He said the “running assumption” is that it hit an iceberg. Water began to trickle into a cabin and eventually flooded the engine room, causing the ship to lose power.
The accident occurred well north of the Antarctic Circle in an island chain that is part of the Antarctic peninsula, which juts close to South America and has seen sharp warming of temperatures in recent years.
As nearby vessels were alerted, the ship’s 100 passengers – 14 of them American, 24 British, 17 Dutch, 12 Canadian and a smattering of other nationalities – were awakened and told to don warm clothes and life preservers, said Mark Clark, a spokesman for Britain’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which was one of the first authorities to receive the distress signal. They clambered down ladders on the ship’s side to board lifeboats.
Clark said they were taken aboard a small research vessel, the National Geographic Endeavour, that was nearby, before they were transferred to a Norwegian cruise liner, the Nordnorge. Brown said open lifeboats bobbed in the frigid waters for four hours before the Nordnorge could help them.
Jon Bowermaster, a travel writer and filmmaker who was lecturing on the National Geographic Endeavour, said: “We arrived just exactly alongside the Nordnorge. There was a long line of black rubber Zodiac boats and a handful of orange lifeboats strung out and it was very surreal because it was a very beautiful morning with the sun glistening off the relatively calm sea, and all you could think was how relieved these people must have been when they saw these two big ships coming over the horizon. They’d been in the lifeboats around four hours, but cold. the water temperature is not quite freezing and wind chills in the 20s, Fahrenheit.”
Passengers on the Endeavour prepared hot tea and gathered blankets, and a section of the ship was designated as a hospital but there were no emergency cases.
The Explorer, then called the Lindblad explorer, ran aground in similar circumstances in Antarctic waters in February 1972, close to where it foundered today, in heaving seas, and all her passengers then – mostly Americans – had to be rescued by the Chile Navy.
It was not immediately possible to reach the passengers, who had paid somewhere between $8,700 and $16,700 for the 18-day adventure expedition. Brown said they were being taken to King George Island in Antarctica. He said there was confusion about where exactly they would be taken from there.
“The Chileans think they are taking them to Chile, the Argentinians think they are taking them to Argentina and the Brits are talking about taking the British passengers to the Falklands,” he said.
Brown said the company had not yet been able to speak to anyone on board, but some radio stations had managed to speak to the captain of the Nordnorge, and he had reported that “everyone is healthy, uninjured and comfortable,” said Brown. The families are in the process of being notified about the accident, he said.
According to the BBC, First Officer Peter Svensson told Reuters: “We were passing through ice as usual. But this time something hit the hold and we got a little leakage downstairs.
“No one was hysterical, they were just sitting there nice and quiet, because we knew there were ships coming.”
The Chilean authorities said the passengers were being taken to the Chilean Air Force base on King George Island, the President Eduardo FreiMontalva Base, and later the commander of the base was quoted as saying that the Norwegian ship had arrived at the shore of the base around midday, but the passengers had not been able to disembark due to bad weather conditions.
The Explorer – which Brown emphasized was not a luxury cruise liner but an expedition vessel – is registered in Liberia. It embarked from Ushuaia, on the southern tip of Argentina, on Nov. 11, and was due to return on Nov. 29. According to G.A.P.’s website, the ship has swimming pool, sauna, fitness center, and lounge.
The Explorer was built in Finland in 1969 and specially designed to operate in Antarctic and Arctic waters, he said, and has operated for most of its life in the Antarctic.
The Explorer had a double bottom, a second sheath of steel to protect it if the ship runs aground, but the vessel did not have a double hull, a complete second complete sheathing of steel – developed after the Titanic, with a double bottom, sank. Built in 1969, the Explorer was small, to move swiftly through dangerous waters.
Brown said “some deficiencies” in the Explorer were discovered during safety tests in March in Chile and in May in Scotland. On its Web site, Lloyd’s List said the British authorities reported deficiencies including missing search-and-rescue plans, and lifeboat maintenance problems, while watertight doors were described as “not as required,” and fire safety measures were also criticized. The ship later passed a safety test with “flying colors,” the company said, and Brown said the earlier problems “were not serious enough for the boat to be taken out of use.” Argentine, American and British Coast Guard vessels are watching the Explorer, determining whether and how, to try to stop the ship from going down. As last reported by the Argentine Coast Guard, said Brown, it was listing at 40 degrees. “That’s not a good sign,” he said.
A spokesman for the Chilean Navy, Jorge Bastías, said about 50 cruise ships passed through the Antarctic every season from November to February, when weather conditions are reasonable. Most cruise ships come from Ushuaia.
“There are occasional accidents in this route, but very minor ones,” he said. “Conditions in the Antarctic are the most difficult in the world, and accidents occur like everywhere else; here, it is usually running into a rock, or ice. But I have seen many ships in the Antarctic, and sailed on a few, and they are very well equipped and prepared.”
The ship’s operator is part of a growing niche industry of adventure cruises. G.A.P. Adventures. based in Toronto, was founded in 1990 by Bruce Poon Tip, who immigrated to Canada from Trinidad as a child, to specialize in adventure travel, and offers cruises to the Antarctic, Greenland, Scotland and the Amazon. It sends 30 cruises a year into the Antarctic, all on the Explorer. The companies typical customer is a 36 year old woman, he said. G.A.P. said it had never had an accident with one of its ships before, but in March, two Canadian women and an Australian man died after a safari van chartered by the company collided with a truck in Kenya. The two Canadian victims were in their early 20s.
On the Antarctic tour, the passengers stop at the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island, disembarking at both locations before finally heading for the tip of Antarctica. Scientists on board give briefings and lectures on wildlife, geology and climate change. They stopped at points including the grave where Shackleton was buried following his death by a heart attack in 1922.If the Explorer had not hit the ice, the passengers would have disembarked on small zodiac inflatable lifeboats, said Brown, which were used along with lifeboats in the evacuation today.
Coast guard stations in Britain; Norfolk, Virginia; and in Ushuaia, Argentina, received the satellite distress signal and worked closely on the rescue, said Fred Caygill, a spokesman for Britain’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency in Southampton, England.
“There are a lot of countries working together on this incident,” said Caygill. Five ships within the area responded to the signal, he said, including Argentine and American vessels as well as a Chilean warship, before the passengers were rescued by the Nordnorge.
The Explorer was the first passenger vessel to navigate the Northwest Passage, and has operated in Antarctica since 1970.
Stefan Lundgren, a member of the Endeavor staff who had also worked on the Explorer, said he was saddened by the sight of the listing vessel: “For me she was a beautiful lady – boats are ladies – and I have been part of touching her year after year. For every new owner, she gets a new facelift. As an old woman, she’s a tough lady. She doesn’t want to give up, I can tell you. I still believe that perhaps it is not the last time that we see her.”
In addition to the Explorer, the company owns five yachts which are based in the Galapagos Islands and three tour ships in Greece.
While it is privately held and does not disclose financial information, G.A.P. says on its Web site that it handles about 60,000 travelers a year and has about 500 employees.
Regulatory responsibility for the ship is split among different countries and organizations.
G.A.P. is one of 38 full members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, a voluntary group based in Basalt, Colorado.
That organization has hundreds of rules largely devoted to environmental concerns that, among other things, limit ship operators to landing no more than 100 tourists on shore at any time.
Denise Landau, the group’s executive director, said that the rescue was based on an emergency response system that requires all ships belonging to member companies to track each other’s status at all times.
While the Explorer is not leaking any fluids, Landau said that under the association’s rules it uses marine gas oil which generally dissipates rather than coating wildlife and shorelines.
Because Canada is a signatory to Antarctic treaties, G.A.P. must obtain a permit from its home country to bring tours to the region.
All issues relating to the vessel’s design, condition and crew, said Landau, fall under the control of Liberia, where the Explorer is registered.
A page on the company’s Web site offers potential customers “what to expect from a G.A.P. Adventures Trip.”
“Whatever happens,” the site warns, “it’s best to remember that it’s all part of the experience.”
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