US icebreaker, New Zealand vessel race to free Australian ship stuck in Antarctic ice

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star on Jan 15, 2015. The icebreaker is racing to the rescue of an Australian fishing vessel with 27 people on board stuck in the Antarctic ice. -- PHOTO: AFP
The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star on Jan 15, 2015. The icebreaker is racing to the rescue of an Australian fishing vessel with 27 people on board stuck in the Antarctic ice. -- PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - A United States icebreaker is racing to rescue an Australian fishing vessel with 27 people on board stuck in the Antarctic ice, the US Coast Guard said on Wednesday.

The 63m Australian ship the Antarctic Chieftain contacted New Zealand rescue coordinators after becoming stuck some 1,450km north-east of McMurdo Sound in Antarctica, it said in a statement.

New Zealand rescuers diverted the US Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, which was in the region, asking it to head to the Australian vessel's rescue. The Seattle-based US ship must cut through over 530km of ice, and is expected to reach the stricken fishing vessel - which has three of its four propellers broken and can no longer maneuver - around 6am GMT on Friday.

"The considerable geographic distances and extreme environmental conditions make this a complex rescue mission," said Captain Matthew Walker, commanding officer of the Polar Star. "However, we're confident in our ability to reach the Antarctic Chieftain and committed to ensuring the safety of life at sea no matter the challenges."

The Polar Star will free the Australian ship from the ice, while a New Zealand-flagged fishing vessel in the area, the Janas, is expected to escort or tow the Antarctic Chieftain to the nearest safe harbor.

"The seas of Antarctica are treacherous and unforgiving," said US Coast Guard Vice-Admiral Charles Ray, commander of the US organisation's Pacific area.

"This incident is a sobering reminder of the importance of the US icebreaker fleet as we see increased human activity in the Polar Regions."