, WELLINGTON, Dec 17 – A New Zealand Air Force plane made a mercy flight to the Antarctic Saturday to drop equipment and fuel to a stricken Russian fishing boat taking on water in the freezing Southern Ocean.
An icebreaker was also preparing to set sail for the Antarctic to join the rescue mission, but a New Zealand fishing boat was pulled out of the operation because of the dangerous ice conditions.
The Russian-flagged Sparta, with a crew of 32, sent out a distress call early Friday after it was holed 1.5 metres below the water line and started to list near the Antarctic ice shelf.
The crew have since been able to remove water from the hold to stabilise the vessel but need an additional pump.
They will not be rescued for several days, as ships are being severely hampered by heavy sea ice as they make their way towards the Sparta which is about 2,000 nautical miles (3,704 kilometres) southeast of New Zealand.
The boat was in “a safer position” than it was on Friday and the crew who had left the vessel as a precautionary measure were back on board, New Zealand rescue co-ordinator Chris Wilson said.
“With Sparta now more stable, the vessel is the safest place for them,” Wilson said, adding the crew were preparing patches to place over the hole in the hull if they can lighten the vessel enough to correct the list.
The Air Force Hercules was able to drop a pump, pipes and fuel to the Sparta after an eight-hour flight from New Zealand.
“The second pump will provide greater capacity to the crew and will also provide back up in the event one of Sparta’s pumps fail. Pumps aren’t designed to work 24/7, so it is important they have that security,” Wilson said.
Two rescue vessels — the Russian-flagged Chiyo Maru No 3 and the Norwegian vessel Sel Jevaer — were all still some days away from the Sparta and faced tricky journeys through thick ice.
But another vessel, the New Zealand fishing boat San Aspiring, was pulled out of the rescue operation Saturday after the trip was deemed too long and potentially dangerous, a New Zealand rescue official said.
She said the owners of the Sparta had independently arranged for the South Korean icebreaker Araon, currently at the New Zealand port of Lyttelton, to join the rescue. The Araon would take eight days to reach the stricken vessel.
“We may be a little short on time, but the Araon will be able to play a vital role in the rescue mission by paving a way for rescue ships,” Araon captain Kim Hyeon-Yool told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
The weather in the area is calm and about three degrees Celsius (37 Fahrenheit).