Russian ship hits iceberg off Antarctica

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Several crew from a stricken Russian fishing boat have taken to life-rafts in icy Antarctic waters Friday as rescuers said it could take five days to reach them.

The Sparta began taking on water after hitting an iceberg and sent out a distress call from near the Antarctic ice shelf about 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 kilometres) southeast of New Zealand.

The Russian-flagged fishing boat with a crew of 32 -- 15 Russians, 16 Indonesians and a Ukrainian -- is on a 13-degree list after being holed 1.5 metres (five feet) below the water line.

Officers have remained on board and are pumping water from the hold while some crew have taken to life-rafts "as a precautionary measure", the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre (RCCNZ) said.

The RCCNZ has called for help from vessels working in the Southern Ocean but heavy sea ice made their movement difficult and they are "not expected to reach the area for four to five days", search coordinator Ramon Davis said.

The New Zealand vessel San Aspiring is 470 nautical miles away and should reach the Sparta by Tuesday.

The Sparta's sister ship, Chiyo Maru No 3, is only 290 nautical miles away but has no capacity to cut or break through sea ice, and another vessel is only 19 nautical miles away but is hemmed in by ice and unable to proceed.

There were no helicopters in the area that could undertake a rescue but a transport plane from the Antarctic Research Centre at McMurdo Station was able to fly over the Sparta and make contact as well as assess the ice conditions.

"So far, the crew has managed to keep up with the ingress of water. They have also attached a tarpaulin on the outside of the hull which is helping slow the rate of water into the hold," Davis said.

"They have asked us to supply them with more pumps to allow them to increase the pumping speed, and also provide backup to the pumps they are already working with."

Davis said RCCNZ was investigating options for delivering pumps to the stricken vessel.

"If they can get all the water out of the hold that might lighten the ship enough for the hole to be above the water line, and allow the crew to repair the damage.

The weather in the area is calm and about three degrees Celsius (37 Fahrenheit).

© 2011 AFP

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