By Curtis Skinner
(Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard has rescued an Australian fishing vessel carrying 26 people that had been stranded in icy Antarctic seas since last week, the Coast Guard said on Tuesday.
The crew was saved on Sunday by the Coast Guard cutter Polar Star, which broke through some 150 miles (240 km) of thick ice on its way to the 207-foot (63-meter) Antarctic Chieftain vessel, the Coast Guard said in a statement.
The Chieftain had been stuck about 900 miles (1,450 km) northeast of McMurdo Sound since last Tuesday, after damaging three of its four propellers in the ice, the Coast Guard said.
"There were some very happy sailors aboard Antarctic Chieftain upon our arrival," Polar Star commanding officer, Captain Matthew Walker, said in a statement.
"The ice conditions that we found the fishermen in were dire, more so if Antarctic Chieftain had to stay much longer," he added.
The Coast Guard initially said 27 people were trapped, but Coast Guard Lieutenant Donnie Brzuska said there were only 26 on board, citing poor early communication with the trapped ship.
The Polar Star braved extreme ice and whiteout conditions on its way to the Chieftain, but was eventually able to tow it to open water, the Coast Guard said. The fishing vessel was able to maneuver on its own once freed.
The Chieftain will be escorted by another fishing vessel to Nelson, New Zealand, where officials helped coordinate the rescue operation, according to the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard's Polar Star is almost 40 years old and the only heavy icebreaker in the United States capable of handling those icy Antarctic conditions, the Coast Guard said.
The Polar Star crew had just completed its annual mission, known as "Operation Deep Freeze," to break a channel through the sea ice of McMurdo Sound in Antarctica to resupply and refuel the U.S. Antarctic Program's McMurdo Station on Ross Island.
Last January, the breaker cut short a mission to help free a Russian ship and a Chinese icebreaker from the Antarctic ice.
(Reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)