US icebreaker closing in on stranded Australian ship

US icebreaker closing in on stranded Australian ship
This January 15, 2015 US Coast Guard handout photograph shows the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, a heavy icebreaker homeported in Seattle, breaking a parallel channel in the ice beside a previous channel near the National Science Foundation's McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

WELLINGTON - A US ship was "dodging massive icebergs" as it races to help an Australian fishing vessel stuck in the Antarctic ice, rescue authorities said Friday.

The 63-metre (207-foot) "Antarctic Chieftain" became trapped in ice some 900 nautical miles (1,650 kilometres) northeast of McMurdo Sound on Tuesday, damaging its propeller, the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand said in a statement.

The centre said the trawler's hull was not damaged and the crew of 26 was not at risk.

"The crew is safely on board, they have plenty of supplies and the vessel's integrity is not compromised," rescue coordinator Greg Johnston said, adding that there had been no oil spill in the environmentally sensitive area.

He said the US Coast Guard icebreaker "Polar Star" was about 100 nautical miles away and should reach it late Friday or early Saturday.

"We are navigating through heavy pack ice, dodging massive icebergs ... some that are miles across, often in low visibility conditions," the icebreaker's commander, captain Matthew Walker said in a statement.

"The mission... we are now engaged (in) demonstrates the Coast Guard's core mission to save lives at sea, in any continent's waters." The Coast Guard ship will break the trawler out of the ice and tow if free if the propeller damage means it cannot manoeuvre under its own steam.

Johnston said a New Zealand-flagged fishing boat "Janas" was approximately 750 nautical miles away and heading to the area to escort or tow the stricken vessel to the nearest safe harbour.

Initial reports said there were 27 crew but Johnston said it was 26, half of them from New Zealand.

The Antarctic Chieftain, built in 2002, is licenced to trawl for Patagonian toothfish, a slow-growing species that has a type of anti-freeze in its blood to deal with the punishing southern conditions.

The ship's owners, Australian Longline, said on their website that the vessel spends six months at a time in Antarctic waters fishing the prized species, which is also known as "white gold" for the profits it can yield.

The Coast Guard described Antarctic waters as "treacherous and unforgiving".

A South Korean toothfish trawler sank in the same area in 2010 with the loss of 22 lives, prompting a New Zealand coroner's inquiry that last year to call for tighter safety standards on ships plying the icy waters.

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