Ship passengers spend New Year's Eve on ice

AIMEE GULLIVER
Last updated 15:14 31/12/2013

Australian icebreaker attempt to reach trapped Russian ship halted by blizzard. Paul Chapman reports.

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Reuters Zoom
The Polar Star is being sent by the US to help free Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy and Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon gripped by Antarctic ice.

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A helicopter evacuation is the only option left to rescue 74 passengers on board the Russian vessel stuck in Antarctica as bad weather continues to prevent icebreaker ships reaching it.

The Aurora Australis attempted to reach the Akademik Shokalskiy yesterday but was driven back into open waters due to winds up to 30 knots and snow showers resulting in poor visibility, Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman Lisa Martin said.

The helicopter on board the Chinese flagged vessel Xue Long, which attempted the initial rescue, would now be used to rescue the passengers from the Akademik Shokalskiy.

The rescue would be a complex operation involving a number of steps and subject to factors such as weather, Martin said.

The helicopter was unable to fly in the current weather conditions, and would hold off on the rescue until conditions improved.

Weather conditions were unlikely to start improving until tomorrow and decisions related to carrying out the rescue may be made at short notice, Martin said.

An area for the helicopter to land has been marked on the ice near the Akademik Shokalskiy in preparation for the rescue.

All 52 passengers would leave the ship, and all 22 crew members were expected to remain on board.

The passengers would be rescued by helicopter in groups of 12 and would be initially transported to the Xue Long before being transferred to the Aurora Australis.

PARTY ON BOARD

Speaking to Fairfax Media from the Akademik Shokalskiy, the ship's doctor, Dr Andrew Peacock, said those on board had always known they would be on the ship for New Year's Eve, but thought they would be halfway back to New Zealand, not stranded in Antarctica.

"We will still enjoy celebrating," Peacock said.

"There will be a muted aspect to it, I think, but maybe tomorrow will bring some good news and hopefully a quick resolution.

"There has been a song devised for tonight's New Year's event, so people have been practising that."

Despite trying to keep their spirits up, it was frustrating so much effort had been required from other people to rescue them, Peacock said.

"None of us like to be here causing trouble to other people coming to help us out, but the reality is we have no control over these events.

"The best thing to do is for us all to pull together and keep positive, and enjoy what aspects we can of being stuck here and hopefully things will sort themselves out soon."

The ship was caught unawares by a breakout of ice that was unusual in how quickly it appeared in the location they were at on Christmas Day, Peacock said.

"Christmas Day was when we were turning north to head home, and we really got stuck just 2 nautical miles from the open water as we were making our way through this new area of pack ice.

"We had finished the scientific programme on the Antarctic continent edge, and we were really headed home."

Weather conditions were hampering rescue efforts, Peacock said.

"Helicopter operations aren't possible, and even if an icebreaker could reach us they would have difficulty seeing the ice ahead of them.

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"It really just means all operations are on hold."

A long logistical process would have to take place before the next step in the rescue could be determined, he said.

"There isn't going to be one sudden event that causes a rescue to happen. There's discussions going on between three or four different nationality icebreakers and maritime services, the ship's captain, and the weather plays a big part in what's going on.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to get our ship out of the ice and heading back to New Zealand rather than having to evacuate the ship, which none of us want.

"Unfortunately big ice and bad weather pay heed to no human, so we just have to deal with the cards we've got in front of us."

The Akademik Shokalskiy left New Zealand on November 28 on a private expedition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of an Antarctic journey led by Australian explorer Douglas Mawson.

The 74 people aboard include scientists and tourists, six New Zealanders, and 22 Russian crew.

A first rescue attempt by a Chinese icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, had to be halted because the ice was so thick.

The Snow Dragon is 6.7 nautical miles from the Akademik Shokalskiy and a helicopter on board will be used to rescue all 52 passengers and some crew if weather conditions permit, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

- Stuff

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