Crew stabilizes leaky Russian ship near Antarctica

AP News
Posted: Dec 16, 2011 9:30 PM
Crew stabilizes leaky Russian ship near Antarctica

The 32 crew members aboard a leaking Russian fishing ship near Antarctica have made progress stabilizing the vessel, and a plane was scheduled to drop them supplies Saturday. Rescue ships, hampered by heavy sea ice, were still several days away.

The vessel Sparta hit underwater ice Friday, tearing a 1-foot (30-centimeter) hole in the hull and causing it to list at 13 degrees. Maritime New Zealand, which is coordinating rescue attempts, said Saturday that the crew had pumped water from the vessel overnight and moved cargo around, making the boat safer and more stable.

Crew members who had donned emergency suits and boarded life rafts were now back aboard the Sparta, the agency said.

A New Zealand Defence Force C-130 plane was scheduled to drop fuel and equipment, including another water pump, to the vessel later in the day.

The crew members were making patches that they would attach to the hole in the hull if they can get the ship upright, said Chris Wilson, who was coordinating the rescue mission for Maritime New Zealand on Saturday.

"It's a very remote, unforgiving environment," said Andrew Wright, executive secretary of the Australian-based Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which has licensed the Sparta to catch toothfish in the Southern Ocean.

Wright said he didn't know what caused the hole, although he added that an iceberg "would be a good candidate."

The Sparta, which is 157 feet (48 meters) long, sent a distress call early Friday. Maritime New Zealand said heavy ice in the Southern Ocean would make it difficult for other ships to reach the vessel.

The Sparta's sister ship Chiyo Maru No. 3 was heading toward the stricken vessel but had no capacity to cut through sea ice, the agency said. A New Zealand vessel, the San Aspiring, had some ice-cutting ability and was also en route, but was still three to four days away on Saturday. A third vessel was much closer, but was hemmed in by heavy ice and unable to move toward the Sparta.

The crew's emergency immersion suits can keep them alive for a time in freezing water, Maritime New Zealand said.

The crew is made up of 15 Russians, 16 Indonesians and one Ukrainian, the agency said.

The weather in the area was calm Saturday, with temperatures a relatively mild 37 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius).

Commission records list the captain of the Sparta, which was built in 1988, as Oleg Pavlovich Starolat, who is Russian.