By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 24, 2007
BUENOS AIRES, Nov. 23 -- The first cruise ship ever built to ply the frigid waters off Antarctica became the first ever to sink there Friday. The red-hulled M/S Explorer struck ice, took on water as 154 passengers and crew members scrambled to safety aboard lifeboats and rafts, then went to the bottom.
The 38-year-old vessel was in the middle of a 19-day voyage when it sent a distress call early Friday morning after puncturing its hull. A Norwegian cruise ship rescued those onboard nearly two hours after they abandoned ship in subfreezing temperatures.
Smallish and with a hull designed to withstand ice, the Explorer pioneered a trade that opened up Antarctica's wonders to people other than scientists and explorers. Today about 37,000 people a year are experiencing the great frozen continent from tour ships.
The 91 passengers aboard the Explorer included at least 13 Americans, 23 Britons and 10 Canadians, according to Canada-based G.A.P. Adventures, which bought the ship three years ago. Along with 54 crew members and nine guides, they were taken to nearby King George Island, where Friday evening they waited be flown to the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas.
"It was submerged ice, and the result was a hole about the size of a fist in the side of the hull, so it began taking on water . . . but quite slowly," G.A.P. Adventures spokeswoman Susan Hayes told the Associated Press. "The passengers are absolutely fine. They're all accounted for, no injuries whatsoever."
It was the second time this year that an Antarctic cruise ship had to be evacuated. On Jan. 31, a Norwegian ship, the Nordkapp, ran aground near the South Shetland Islands and 370 people aboard were rescued.
Lloyd's List, a British trade publication that covers the shipping and maritime industries, reported Friday that the Explorer was found to have five deficiencies during an inspection in May by Britain's Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The inspection found fault with its search-and-rescue plans, lifeboat maintenance, watertight doors and fire safety measures. A previous inspection in Chile in March found six deficiencies, according to Lloyd's List.
The ship received a valid safety certification in October, according to Lloyds.
The National Geographic Endeavour, another Antarctic cruise ship, was about 52 nautical miles away when its crew heard the Explorer's distress call at 1:37 a.m. Friday. The captain of the Endeavour, Oliver Kruess, stayed in regular contact with the Explorer as he traveled at full speed toward the damaged ship.
At 2:50 a.m. the Explorer reported that it had lost propulsion and was drifting toward ice, Kruess wrote in an incident report filed Friday to Lindblad Expeditions, which owns the Endeavour. A 4 a.m. message said that power had been restored, but at 4:30 the ship reported that there was progressive flooding in its sanitary system and that passengers were in lifeboats.
Kruess was informed at 4:50 a.m. that the captain and the chief officer of the Explorer had abandoned ship. The vessel's engine could no longer be controlled and the ship was moving in tight circles.
After arriving at the scene about 6:30 a.m. with the Norwegian ship, the Nordnorge, Kruess took stock of Explorer from aboard his own vessel. It "was listing heavily to starboard at an angle of possibly about 25 degrees," Kruess wrote. "The water level on her starboard side was reaching the restaurant window level."
In subfreezing temperatures and calm seas, the passengers were moved onto the Nordnorge in less than an hour.
Nordnorge Capt. Arnvid Hansen told BBC television in a telephone interview that the passengers didn't appear to be frightened during the rescue. "They were a little bit cold and wet, but in good condition," Hansen said as his ship sailed toward a Chilean naval base. "We brought on board warm clothes and food and accommodations, so they are in a good mood now."
Built in 1969 and specifically designed for polar travel, the 246-foot Explorer was the first passenger ship to traverse the Northwest Passage, the normally ice-locked route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific through the northern islands of Canada.
The ship's relatively small size -- 2,646 tons -- allowed it to navigate among ice floes. Its hull had been reinforced to withstand collisions with ice.
"It's very sad -- I was hoping she'd be retired and become a museum somewhere," said Sven-Olaf Lindblad, whose late father built the Explorer and founded the company that became Lindblad Expeditions, a partner with the National Geographic Society.
Lindblad said Friday that he didn't yet know the exact cause of the accident. "I'm perplexed that a hole of that size could have caused that much damage," he said. Lindblad worked aboard the Explorer with his father in the 1970s.
Tours on the Explorer cost about $10,000 per person, according to online travel companies that book the voyage.
With a crew that included marine and avian biologists, geologists and naturalists, the ship left the southern Argentine port of Ushuaia on Nov. 11 and headed toward the Falkland Islands, South Georgia island and the Antarctic Peninsula.
More than 37,000 people boarded Antarctic cruise ships during the 2006-07 high season, which ran from October through March, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. That was an increase of more than 20 percent.