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Antarctic sinking raises concerns

Bob Flood couldn't sleep for all the noise. Berthed in the port bow of the M/S Explorer, he could hear the banging and crunching and scraping against the steel hull of the 246-foot expeditionary vessel known as "the Little Red Ship."

"We'd been cutting through ice floes all night," says the 52-year-old ornithologist. One of Explorer's scientific staff, Flood had been lecturing aboard the ship during a 19-day adventure cruise from Ushuaia on Argentina's south tip to the Antarctic Peninsula.

It was after midnight Nov. 21, and he was thinking of getting up anyway since he was wide awake. The ship's forward motion had just stuttered for a moment with one particularly jarring hit. Comparing notes later, he and some of the other 100 passengers and 54 crewmembers wondered if that had been Explorer's death blow.

Twenty minutes later, just after 1 a.m., alarms sounded and the captain came over the public address system to report an emergency. All passengers and crew were to use the head, get a drink and put on their warmest clothes and a life jacket. Then they were to report to their muster stations. Passengers, some of whom had paid upward of $16,000 for this once-in-a-lifetime cruise, learned at their muster station that there was a "hole the size of a fist" below the waterline on the hull's starboard side. Water was pouring into a passenger cabin.

The passengers weren't your everyday tourists, so they didn't panic, but they did react soberly - very soberly, Flood says. Explorer was in Bransfield Strait, 12 miles from King George Island and 75 miles from the peninsula that juts out from the South Pole toward Cape Horn. Water temperature was 28 degrees, cold enough to kill a person in two minutes, and choked with ice floes - a lot more than usual for just weeks shy of the December-to-February Antarctic summer.

The ship earlier had tried to make its way to the South Orkney Islands, but the ice was too thick, so it turned toward Esperanza, the Argentine base off the peninsula's tip, Flood says. "We had to divert miles and miles, skirting the edges of the ice pack," he says.

With his ship holed, the captain issued a mayday. The nearest vessel was reported to be 12 hours away, a very long time when you're on a ship at night taking on water in the Southern Ocean. But at least help was on the way. "That was something hopeful," Flood says.

From early situation reports, the captain seemed to think crewmembers had pretty well plugged the hole, and pumps were keeping up with the water, Flood says. Still, after an hour the 38-year-old ship was listing 15 degrees to starboard. At 2:30 it lost power. "Everything blacked out," he says.

Emergency generators restored lights, but the engines remained down. "We were listing and drifting without any control in pack ice," he says. Explorer drifted alongside an iceberg half the ship's length. As tall as Explorer's hull, the mountain of ice would have prevented the launching of two of four lifeboats, if it came to that. This then became an overriding concern - ability to launch lifeboats - as the list worsened.

"The captain wanted to keep us aboard as long as possible, but he also did not want to risk the lifeboats getting caught up on ice," Flood says. At 3 a.m., with the list now 25 degrees and the iceberg drifting away, the captain gave the order to abandon ship.

"It's a bit heart-fluttering when you hear that in Antarctica," Flood says. The weather was calm by Southern Ocean standards: winds 13 to 18 mph, seas bouncy with a heavy chop, and air temperature tolerable but well below freezing, according to Flood.

Adrift in the lifeboats

Except for some balky release hooks on the lifeboat davits, the abandon-ship went reasonably well. However, three of the lifeboat engines wouldn't start. Flood's boat was one of those without power. "We couldn't get away from the hull," he says. "They couldn't launch the other lifeboat because we were underneath it. We were doing all we could with our oars to push ourselves off and row away."

Finally getting away from the ship, Flood's lifeboat was "helpless, drifting without engines" in the ice and chop until crewmembers launched eight Zodiacs, which towed and gathered the lifeboats. The open, wooden lifeboats were cold and wet, with water splashing over the gunwales.

Survivors huddled in groups of five or six and zipped themselves into body-length thermal bags with hoods. Some joked light-heartedly about the Titanic. Some buoyed each other with quips: "We'll be drinking a pint together at the pub tomorrow." But mostly it was just quiet, very quiet, as people settled into their thoughts of what would happen next.

Flood, editor of a scientific journal and an activist with Save the Albatross, a group fighting to help keep the big seabirds from dying on long-line fishing hooks ( ), had lectured several times before on Antarctic cruises. He knew the region's unpredictable moods. "Things can change so quickly down there," says Flood, who spoke to Soundings in a telephone interview from his home in Britain's Isles of Scilly. "From relative calm to blizzard and snow. I'd seen it many times before. There was no guarantee that the weather would hold."

If it didn't hold and the lifeboat capsized, "I didn't want to drown," says Flood. "I knew I would die of cold. It would be over very quickly."

Those dark thoughts began to give way to more hopeful ones when a helicopter from a Brazilian base in Antarctica buzzed overhead. Rescuers had found them. Then word came through the captain that the Norwegian liner Nordnorge and the research vessel Endeavour were just five hours off. A little later, their ETA was amended to two hours. A little later, Flood was looking off to the horizon when he saw a flicker in the twilight. It was one of the rescue ships. By dawn, Nordnorge and Endeavour were alongside the tight circle of survivors. Just four hours had passed since they'd abandoned Explorer.

Flood says the most dangerous part of the ordeal was transferring people from the lifeboats to the Zodiacs to one of Nordnorge's lifeboats, which hung from a davit just above the water. Rescuers were using that lifeboat as a lift to bring survivors aboard. The chop tossed the boats up and down and apart. The survivors were tired, cold and bundled in cumbersome clothes. One woman lost her grip and almost fell into the water climbing from one boat to the other.

"It was a miracle she didn't," says Flood. "I have to take my hat off to the Zodiacs and to the Nordnorge rescue team. They were incredible, absolutely incredible."

Two hours after the rescue, snow and 40-knot winds swept through Bransfield Strait, and 16 hours after she first took on water the 2,398-ton Explorer sank in 3,000 feet. Nordnorge debarked Explorer's passengers at a Chilean naval base on nearby King George Island, where navy planes ferried them to Punta Arenas, Chile.

Flood says he would go back. Antarctica - its beauty as extreme as its weather - still has allure for him. "It was a freak accident," he says. But so were the circumstances of the rescue. Ships were close by; the nasty weather held off. "It was a perfect rescue," he says.

Why'd she sink?

Built in 1969 in Nystad, Finland, Explorer was one of the first expeditionary vessels launched for polar tourism. The ship's doubled-plated hull, rated 1A1 Ice A by the Norwegian classification society Det Norske Veritas, was designed to operate in ice. The rating is DNV's second-highest and qualified Explorer for "difficult ice conditions," according to the Swedish Maritime Administration.

Experts suspect Explorer hit a car-sized "growler" or maybe a bigger 18-wheeler-sized "bergy bit," icebergs nearly invisible to the radar that extend just a few feet above the water but carry a much larger girth beneath the surface. Flood - and others - think there must have been "something else" besides the hole that caused the ship to sink. A spokeswoman for G.A.P. Adventures, Explorer's Toronto-based operator, says there was a crack and a hole, which, according to press reports, the crew couldn't effectively seal.

Eric W. Sorensen, a yacht design and safety consultant (and Soundings' technical writer), says the presumption is that in an emergency a ship's crew probably won't be able to patch a hole, so it's up to watertight bulkheads to contain the flooding and save the ship from sinking. Some have suggested the crack in Explorer's hull might have spanned a bulkhead, flooding two compartments instead of one. But Sorensen says that's unlikely, since the hull would have been heavily reinforced at the bulkhead.

He suspects alterations over Explorer's 38-year life broke its watertight integrity. One report says water poured into the engine room through a 2-inch pipe that removed condensation from the cabin.

Whatever the cause, if water breached a bulkhead, Explorer was vulnerable. With a hole 6 inches across and 36 inches below the waterline, the vessel would have taken on frigid seawater at a rate of 1,250 gallons a minute, according to Sorensen - too much for the pumps. "Bilge pumps are not capable of keeping up with even a very small hole," Sorensen says.

Explorer's sinking has incited calls for limits on Antarctic tourism, especially on ships carrying thousands of passengers. "This incident involving a capable vessel with just over 150 people aboard throws into stark relief the risks posed by the enormous vessels which have now begun to operate in the Antarctic, some of which carry five or more times that number of people," says Jim Barnes, executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, in a statement from his Washington, D.C., office.

Golden Princess, the largest passenger liner to visit Antarctica, carried 3,700 passengers and crew into the Southern Ocean in 2006-'07, says Barnes, who spoke to Soundings in a telephone interview from France. He says a superliner poses more of a pollution threat than Explorer because it not only carries far more fuel but heavy bunker fuel instead of marine diesel. And if it sank, it could unleash a huge human catastrophe.

"It's a miracle that no one died [on Explorer]," he says. The rescue could have gone badly in bad weather at a more remote location with no ships or land bases nearby. Even under ideal conditions, there aren't enough boats or planes in Antarctica to rescue 3,700 people. "It doesn't take much imagination to think of a tragic outcome," says Barnes.

He characterizes Explorer as a well-tested, ice-strengthened vessel run by an experienced crew. "The accident highlights the risks of conducting Antarctic tourism in larger or less-suitable vessels, by less-capable operators, or in parts of Antarctica that are less-well-known or more remote, where there would be less help at hand," he says.

Impact of tourism

Barnes says the growing popularity of Antarctic tourism is troubling, too. Some 4,700 people visited Antarctica in summer 1992-'93, a number that soared to 37,500 visitors and 22,400 crewmembers in 2006-'07.

Barnes wants the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat to ban big ships that carry thousands of people and hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel; establish stringent ice-strengthening standards for vessels that go into Antarctic waters; and re-evaluate tourism's impact on the region's fragile ecology. He advocates permitting to limit the number of visitors, a strategy that national parks use to protect wilderness. "We're not against tourism," he says. But he is for tighter controls.

The industry already is self-regulated. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators sets operator standards - stricter than Antarctic treaty guidelines - for keeping Antarctica pristine and providing mutual aid in emergencies. IAATO's standards are "excellent," and its mutual assistance provisions helpful for operating in Antarctic waters, says Kate Laird, who with her husband, Hamish, operates charters to Antarctica on their ice-hardened 56-foot aluminum cutter, Seal. She says cruise operators do make sure that their passengers don't leave a footprint.

"It is remarkable that one can go on a beach where 200 tourists have landed the day before and find no trace of their visit," she says. "The biggest day-to-day impact is probably emissions, and one potential change that is under discussion is for low-emission outboard motors [4-strokes] on the inflatable boats used for carrying tourists ashore." Those would make a big dent in emissions, she says. IAATO already recommends that its member vessels carry lighter marine-grade fuel to minimize damage in the event of a spill, according to Denise Landau, executive director of the IAATO.

Laird believes a flourishing tourist trade could help protect Antarctica from future attempts to open it to drilling and mineral exploitation. "That will surely do more damage to this pristine environment than a lost ship or two," she says. "And the hundreds of thousands of tourists who have experienced the stunning beauty of Antarctica are the best lobby for keeping it as the one real natural environment we have left on this planet."

She says there are dangers in cruising Antarctic waters, even for those who are well-prepared. Seal is purpose-built for polar cruising with a bow section that is watertight and seven times stronger than that required by the American Bureau of Shipping for metal-hulled yachts. Yet, like Explorer, it could be holed, and because there are no rescue boats nearby, she and Hamish would have to rely on other commercial vessels for help - if any happened to be in the area.

"People contemplating a trip to Antarctica, whether on a sailboat or a cruise ship, need to understand that there is risk involved. But part of the enjoyment of sailing in these waters comes from those risks," she says. "Yes, it is cold; yes, there is ice; and there can be high winds, and these things can be dangerous. But so are a lot of things that we do without thinking about the dangers."