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US Coast Guard icebreaker off Australia heads toward Antarctica to free 2 ships

In this Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013 image provided by Australasian Antarctic Expedition/Footloose Fotography, passengers from the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy trapped in the ice 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart, Australia, walk around the ice. Passengers on board a research ship that has been trapped in Antarctic ice for a week are expected to be rescued by helicopter, after three icebreakers failed to reach the paralyzed vessel, officials said Tuesday.

SEATTLE — She’s not the biggest ship around, but she’s the baddest of her kind, and now the Seattle-based Polar Star, the U.S. Coast Guard’s only active heavy-duty polar icebreaker, is heading to Antarctica to rescue two other icebreakers stuck in pack ice.

The Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, which helped evacuate 52 passengers from the trapped Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy last week, is now feared to be blocked by ice, as well.

The Polar Star, a 399-foot, 13-ton powerhouse whose engines can deliver 75,000 horsepower, recently completed a $90 million, three-year overhaul, according to the Coast Guard. With its specially designed hull, it can continuously break 6 feet of ice while moving at three knots, and break through a two-story wall of ice by backing up and ramming.

The icebreaker left Sydney, Australia, Saturday morning Pacific Time and is expected to be at the scene of the icebound ships — about 1,500 miles south of Hobart, Tasmania — about Jan. 12, said Chief Warrant Officer Allyson Conroy, of the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Polar Star, which finished its tests in Arctic ice in July, has been traveling toward Antarctica since early last month en route to its regular job — resupplying and refueling research stations there managed by the National Science Foundation.

On Friday, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating rescue operations, asked the U.S. Coast Guard for assistance after the Xue Long got stuck; the Russian and Chinese governments have also requested U.S. assistance, Conroy said.

“Our highest priority is safety of life at sea, which is why we are assisting in breaking a navigational path for both of these vessels,” said Vice Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, Coast Guard Pacific Area Commander, in a statement. “We are always ready and duty bound to render assistance in one of the most remote and harsh environments on the face of the globe.”

Retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Jeffrey Garrett, former commander of Polar Sea, Polar Star’s sister ship, and former district commander in Seattle, said the Polar Star is a much stronger icebreaker than either of the two stuck ships.

Its 75,000 horsepower far outguns the Russian ship, with about 3,000 horsepower, or the Chinese icebreaker, which, although larger at 15 tons, has less than 18,000 horsepower, he said. Polar Star is also more maneuverable than the single-propeller Chinese ship, he said, with three shafts and three propellers, and with both diesel and “high-end, heavy-duty” gas turbine engines.

The ship’s hull is specially designed for icebreaking, both in terms of its shape, special steel cladding, and the ship’s frame underneath, Garrett said. “More power, better maneuverability — the chances of the Star getting stuck are much smaller,” said Garrett, who most recently has served as an ice pilot on Antarctic cruises.

Senators from Washington and Alaska are seeking to construct as many as four new heavy-duty icebreakers, a project with a price tag of $850 million or more per vessel. Polar Star and Polar Sea were built in the 1970s by Lockheed Shipbuilding in Seattle.

The Antarctic saga began Christmas Eve, when the Russian ship, carrying a scientific team recreating Australian explorer Douglas Mawson’s 1911 to 1913 voyage to Antarctica, got stuck in pack ice.

The Chinese ship, carrying a helicopter, came to the rescue. After days of unstable weather, a seven-hour spot of clear weather last week allowed the helicopter to land on the ice Thursday and transport 52 passengers from the Russian ship to a third icebreaker, the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis.

As the Australian icebreaker pushed through the pack to leave the area, the Chinese ship sent word that it, too, had been immobilized by ice.

The Australian ship was halted for some time, but was allowed by the rescue coordinators to resume its journey to resupply Australia’s Antarctic base Casey Station. It plans to return to Tasmania in mid-January with the rescued passengers, who include scientists, journalists and tourists led by an Australian professor studying climate change. A reporter for China’s official Xinhua news agency aboard Xue Long (Snow Dragon) said the 101 crew members onboard are safe and have plenty of supplies, The Associated Press reported.

The Polar Star, which had planned to take a longer break in Sydney, cut its visit short, Conroy said, to move more quickly toward the stranded ships.

Although it can cruise as fast as 18 knots, Garrett said he expected it would proceed at a more economical pace of 12 to 13 knots. It needs fuel for the icebreaking work, he said, and to continue its mission to break a channel into the U.S. station at McMurdo, and escort a tanker and a container ship stuck at the station.

Although the 22 crew members still aboard the Russian ship, as well as those aboard the Chinese ship, have supplies to last some time, Garrett said, the biggest concern is that the continually moving ice sweeps trapped ships along with it.

“The biggest fear is that the ship gets pushed onto shore, or onto a rock . . . the hull gets punctured, and there is a pollution incident or danger to the crew,” he said. “The good news is that they’re at the beginning of summer down there, so conditions are going to get better.”

Garrett said the Polar Star, despite its power, would doubtless proceed carefully, using satellite imagery to study the best routes through the ice.

“They’re obviously going to be very careful. You don’t go dashing in there.”

Material from Seattle Times archives and credited to The Associated Press used in this report.

 

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