Desperate race to save Russian fishing crew adrift in Antarctic

Polar ice continues to hamper rescue attempts as appeal goes out to any ships in the area to help

The crew of a Russian boat that may have hit an iceberg near Antarctica are facing a long wait for help, as their ship continues to take on water.

International help was on the way to the Sparta, but officials said yesterday that it could be up to five days before anybody makes it to the ship, with thick polar ice delaying a rescue.

The vessel was fishing around 2000 miles south-east of New Zealand in the remote Ross Sea and sent out a distress signal early yesterday. Analysts said there is a very short fishing season in the seas around Antarctica and often crews attempt to maximise the potential catch to the detriment of safety.

Throughout last night, the crew was bailing out water to try to stabilise the situation. Almost all its cargo and catch have been thrown overboard. According to a Russian maritime official, 14 crew members had remained on board to deal with the situation, while the rest had evacuated onto the ice.

A 30cm hole in the hull some 1.5m below the waterline is letting water into the vessel but experts said that if enough water is pumped out, the hole might end up above the waterline which would stabilise the situation. The Russian Foreign Ministry said that of the 32 sailors on board, 15 were Russian citizens and two were Ukrainians, while the rest were from Indonesia. "So far there is no direct threat to the lives of the crew," said Ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich. "The weather conditions are fairly good – plus three degrees Celcius." The Foreign Ministry said that the Russian Embassy in New Zealand has set up a special headquarters to coordinate the rescue and has engaged other Russian vessels to assist with the rescue. The coordinating centre was also making contact with other ships in the area and checking in with the Sparta every hour.

An Antarctica-based plane has flown over the scene to check on conditions and help plan for a rescue, but will not be able to evacuate the crew. There are no helicopters in the region, meaning the best hope is another boat.

The Sparta's sister ship is less than 300 nautical miles away, but is unable to cut through ice, while another vessel, believed to be a Norwegian trawler, is less than 20 miles away, but is hemmed in by ice and static. A New Zealand ship, Sun Aspiring, can cut through ice and is en route to the Sparta, but is still up to five days away.

"There is a very stressful situation on board the ship and the crew is working in emergency mode," said Andrei Polomar, the Director of Antei, which runs the Sparta. "Everyone on board is doing their best and fighting to save the ship," he told Interfax.

He confirmed that there were plenty of supplies and emergency equipment on board and so measures, such as the crew attempting to navigate 20 miles on foot over the ice to the nearest ship, would not be required. The sailors are also equipped with special suits that would allow them to spend some time in freezing water, but will be hoping it does not come to that.

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