On February 7 an Australian fishing vessel, the 63-metre Antarctic Chieftain, carrying 26 people became trapped in Antarctic pack ice some 1,450 kilometres north-east of McMurdo Sound. The vessel was beset, and ice damaged three of its four propellers rendering the ship not manoeuvrable. The New Zealand’s Rescue Co-ordination Centre was contacted and the US Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, which was 690 km away, was asked to help the vessel.
The Antarctic Chieftain, built in 2002, is licensed to trawl for Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Ocean. It is owned by Tasmanian company Antarctic Longline. In recent years, its flag has varied between Australia and New Zealand. The Antarctic Chieftain has 26 crew members including 13 New Zealanders on board. Commonly the vessel spends six months at a time in Antarctic waters fishing for toothfish. To reach the beset vessel Polar Star had to break through 240 km of sometimes extremely thick ice. "The considerable geographic distances and extreme environmental conditions make this a complex rescue mission," said Captain Matthew Walker, commanding officer of the Polar Star. Polar Star has a reinforced icebreaker hull and is one of the largest ships in the US Coast Guard and one of the world's most powerful non-nuclear icebreakers. It had just completed its annual mission, called “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 when it was called to help. Last year in January, Polar Star assisted to free a Russian ship and a Chinese icebreaker from the Antarctic ice. On their rescue mission, the Polar Star crew had to navigate through difficult weather conditions during the five-day rescue operation including heavy snowfall, high winds and extreme ice conditions. Coast Guardsmen aboard the Polar Star reported whiteout snow conditions early in the operation, and they were required to break through ice that had built up over several years making it up to 4m thick.
After the ice breaker reached the Antarctic Chieftain "the crew on the Polar Star then rigged up towlines and began to tow the Antarctic Chieftain to open water," rescue mission coordinator Conrad Reynecke said in a statement. The Americans had earlier deployed a remote-controlled mini-submarine to assess the damage to the Antarctic Chieftain's propeller and decide if it could travel under its own steam, but the damaged was too big. Antarctic Chieftain damaged three of its four propeller blades in the ice, which required the Polar Star to tow the vessel through about 110 km of ice into open water. Towing the fishing vessel through heavy ice, some ice floes were the size of department stores, placed varying strain on the towline, which broke three times during the rescue mission
Once in open water, the Antarctic Chieftain was able to manoeuvre under its own power. The crew of another New Zealand fishing vessel Janas was then escorting the Antarctic Chieftain to Nelson in New Zealand where the damaged propellers should be repaired. The 3,900 km voyage back will probably take 2 weeks depending on the weather. The ship Antarctic Chieftain is the latest in a succession of vessels to have run into life-threatening and sometimes fatal trouble in the Ross Sea fishing toothfish. In 2010, the South Korean flagged Insung 1 sank in the Ross Sea after its captain left the trawl door open. Twenty-two men died. In December 2011 a Russian-flagged toothfisher, Sparta, nearly sank and it took a multinational effort, including two airdrops by the New Zealand Air Force to get it out safely. A month later another South Korean vessel, Jung Woo 2, caught fire in the Ross Sea, with three killed.
Source: US Coast Guard, Radio New Zealand