WELLINGTON - A US ship reached an Australian fishing trawler stuck in Antarctic pack ice on Saturday and was working to free the stricken vessel, rescue authorities said.
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 US Coast Guard cutter "Polar Star" was ordered to cross through 720 kilometres of iceberg-strewn waters to the ship's aid.
The New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre, which oversees the Southern Ocean search and rescue zone, said the US ship, which has a reinforced icebreaker hull, reached the trawler early Saturday.
The "Polar Star's" commanding officer Captain Matthew Walker said his crew were breaking the ice around the vessel after their arduous journey, which included dodging large icebergs.
"The ice conditions were found to be much more formidable than expected. We are on scene and progressing well with the rescue," he said.
Walker said the Americans would deploy a remote controlled mini-submarine to assess the damage to the "Antarctic Chieftain's" propeller and gauge if it could travel under its own steam.
If not, the icebreaker will tow it free and a New Zealand-flagged trawler "Janas" will take it to the nearest safe harbour.
New Zealand rescue coordinators say the trawler's 26 crew members are not at risk and there has been no oil leak in the environmentally sensitive area.
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.