Russian vessel sends mayday from Antarctic waters

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Rescue vessels could take up to five days to reach a stricken Russian fishing boat which is taking on water in the icy Southern Ocean near Antarctica, New Zealand officials said Friday.

The Russian-flagged Sparta, with a crew of 32, sent out a distress call from near the Antarctic ice shelf at around 3:00am (1400 GMT Thursday), about 2,000 nautical miles (3,704 kilometres) south east of New Zealand.

The 55-metre ship, which is on a 13-degree list, has a crew of 15 Russians, 16 Indonesians, and a Ukranian who are pumping water out of the holds and discharging cargo on to the ice to lighten the ship.

Two fishing boats are making their way towards the Sparta, "but are not expected to reach the area for four to five days", search co-ordinator Ramon Davis said.

The New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre has been in contact with a number of vessels operating in the Southern Ocean but heavy sea ice made their movement difficult.

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

Spartas sister ship, Chiyo Maru No 3, is only 290 nautical miles away but has no capacity to cut or break through sea ice, and an even closer vessel is only 19 nautical miles away but is hemmed in by ice and unable to proceed.

Davis said a Hercules aircraft from the Antarctic Research Centre at McMurdo Station, Ross Island, would fly over Sparta on Friday to assess the ice conditions and help identify options to speed up the rescue if possible.

There were no helicopters in the area which could undertake a rescue and the Hercules would be unable to land leaving a sea rescue as the best option.

"We have contacted a number of vessels," Davis said.

"We are working to find a way to speed the rescue up, but it is possible the crew will have a fairly long wait for rescue.

"We have confirmed the crew has immersion suits on board and other resources which will assist them to survive if they have to abandon the ship."

The weather in the area is calm and about 3.0 degrees Celsius (37.4 Fahrenheit).

© 2011 AFP

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