Britons rescued from sinking Antarctic ship

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Twenty-four Britons had to abandon their stricken Antarctic Ocean cruise ship today after the vessel started listing.

They were among 100 passengers and 54 crew who were evacuated from the Explorer cruise ship which started to take on water after reportedly hitting an iceberg.

Those on board took to life rafts and were eventually transferred to the NordNorge vessel that was in the area.

A Foreign Office spokesman said it had not received any reports of injuries among the Britons.

The passengers included four Irish, 14 Americans, 12 Canadians and 10 Australians.

The Foreign Office spokesman added: "We have not had any reports of anyone seriously injured. We are in contact with all the relevant authorities.

"We are still monitoring the situation closely and will provide full consular assistance as necessary."

The collision, which caused a small hole in one of the cabins of the Canadian-owned, Liberian-flagged vessel, occurred in the early hours of today in temperatures of about minus 5C.

Owner G.A.P. Adventures, based in Toronto, said the M/S Explorer "hit ice" in the Bransfield Strait off King George Island, Antarctica, at 5.24am UK time.

It added that all passengers and crew were safe and uninjured.

The company went on: "Standard procedures were followed by the crew with passengers calmly evacuated to the ship's life rafts and then transferred to the NordNorge, which was in the area."

There were reports that the master of the vessel and one of his officers stayed on the stricken vessel pumping out water.

G.A.P. Adventures said all the crew had now been transferred on to the NordNorge.

UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency spokesman Mark Clark said: "The vessel is in a poor way and its listing is getting worse."

The 2,400-tonne vessel set out from the port of Ushuaia on Argentina's southern tip on November 11 for a 19-day trip through the Drake Passage.

The Falmouth Coastguard in Cornwall joined US and Argentinian authorities in co-ordinating the rescue.

Four US vessels were in the vicinity at the time and sailed to offer assistance, with the rescue being run by staff at the US naval base at Norfolk, Virginia.

The Explorer is one of the best-known specialist cruise ships in the world.

It pioneered the market for Antarctic tours, which also take in South Atlantic highlights such as the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.

One of the British tour companies with whom UK holidaymakers can book trips on the Explorer is Noble Caledonia, based in Belgravia, London.

But its customer relations executive Julian Hartley said today that his company had not booked any Britons on this particular trip.

He said: "We have people booked on trips on the MV Explorer for the coming weeks and we are now busy contacting them."

Typically, holidaymakers on the Explorer pay £4,500 per person for a trip that involves flights to and from Buenos Aires and then connecting flights to Ushuaia.

From there, the MV Explorer sails to the Antarctic Peninsula, before returning to Ushuaia.

Adventure holiday company Explore, whose headquarters are in Farnborough, Hampshire, said 14 of its clients were on the vessel and were taking part in Explore's Spirit of Shackleton tour.

Explore's managing director Ashley Toft said: "Our major concern at this point is, of course, with our customers. While such incidents are very rare, they are nevertheless shocking when they occur.

"We are doing all we can to provide assistance to the group and are closely monitoring the situation with our agents on the ground."

Explore has set up a hotline for concerned family of passengers affected. The hotline number is 01252 391 124.