US vessel joins Antarctic rescue effort

A United States Coast Guard vessel will attempt to bash through the Antarctic ice trapping Russian research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy and the ship which had tried to rescue it, the Xue Long.

Akademik Shokalskiy became stuck in thick pack ice in Commonwealth Bay, some 3000km southwest of Bluff, on Christmas, Eve.

The 52 passengers, including six New Zealanders, spent eight days trapped before a helicopter from the Chinese ship the Xue Long transferred them to Australian vessel Aurora Australis, which is now making its way to Australian Antarctica base Casey Station.

But the Xue Long's attempt to manoeuvre through the ice were unsuccessful and it is now also beset by ice.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said today that the US Coast Guard would make its icebreaker Polar Star available to assist the two stricken vessels.

The Polar Star had been en route to Antarctica since December 3 to clear a shipping channel in McMurdo Sound to the National Science Foundation's scientific research station.

The Polar Star would go on to do this after the rescue attempt, the AMSA said.

It would leave Sydney today and was expected to take about seven days to reach Commonwealth Bay, depending on the weather and ice conditions.

At 122m, the Polar Star is one of the largest ships in the US Coast Guard fleet. It is able to break ice over 6m thick and can continuously break ice up to 1.8m while travelling at 3 knots.

The scientific team on board the Akademik Shokalskiy, led by scientists from the University of New South Wales, had been recreating Australian explorer Douglas Mawson's 1911 to 1913 voyage to Antarctica when they became stuck.

The six New Zealanders are ornithologist Kerry-Jayne Wilson, University of Auckland doctoral student Colin Tan, historians John and Barbara Tucker, and two chefs.

- Matthew Theunissen of APNZ

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