British and Irish holidaymakers forced to abandon their cruise liner when it struck ice are expected to be flown to mainland South America today.
The 24 Britons and four people from Ireland were among 100 passengers forced to use lifeboats when the M/S Explorer hit ice and began taking on water in the Antarctic Ocean.
Passengers abandoned the 2,400-tonne Liberian-flagged vessel after a small hole was punched in the hull in the early hours of yesterday morning.
After enduring temperatures of minus 5C, the passengers and the 54-strong crew were eventually transferred uninjured to Norwegian cruise ship the NordNorge, which had gone to the rescue.
The NordNorge transferred the holidaymakers to King George Island, from where they will be flown to the South American mainland, according to a spokesman for the Explorer’s owners, Toronto-based G.A.P. Adventures.
A Chilean military statement said 84 of those rescued were being housed at Chile’s Presidente Eduardo Frei air force base and the other 70 were at a smaller Uruguayan base.
The landing on King George Island was delayed for several hours by a storm.
Military officials are hoping the weather clears so they can be airlifted today to Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost city.
Air base commander Raul Jorquera said: “There is a lot of wind.”
A spokesman for the Chilean navy said the ship is believed to have sunk last night as its vessels in the area had lost sight of it.
“Our units in the area aren’t seeing anything. The Explorer is not visible any longer.” he said.
Argentina’s coast guard and G.A.P. Adventures were unable to confirm that the boat had sunk.
Fourteen of the Britons were clients of adventure holiday company Explore which has its headquarters in Farnborough, Hampshire.
They were taking part in Explore’s Spirit of Shackleton tour of 19 nights, starting from the port of Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina and including the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.
The G.A.P. spokesman said the passengers would be given the option of continuing their cruise on another ship, or returning home.
Pictures of the incident showed the Explorer listing violently to one side, so the deck was almost in the water.
Passengers abandoned the vessel near a huge iceberg, in a vast expanse of freezing polar water. People could be seen in red life-jackets, boarding shallow, rigid-hulled lifeboats.
They were seen making the crossing between the Explorer and the rescue vessels, which appear many hundred metres apart.
Explore’s managing director Ashley Toft said: “While such incidents are very rare, they are nevertheless shocking when they occur.”
Arnvid Hansen, 54, the captain of the NordNorge, operated by Norwegian cruise company Hurtigruten, said the passengers were cold but not suffering from hypothermia.
He added: “It was no problem to get them on board. They were picked up from the lifeboats...and this operation took around one hour.
“The rescue operation ran very smoothly.”
He said passengers were given warm food and were able to change into dry clothes once on board.
Passengers on the NordNorge donated clothes to those rescued.
As the drama unfolded at a point 62 degrees south, it emerged that UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) inspectors had found five faults with the Explorer when it docked at Greenock in Scotland in May this year.
These included missing search and rescue plans and lifeboat maintenance problems. Watertight doors were described as “not as required”, and the fire safety measures also attracted criticism.
MCA spokesman Mark Clarke said: “These were not huge problems and were all rectified before the vessel sailed. It would not have been allowed to depart if everything had not been sorted out.”
It is understood that Chilean port state control inspectors also found six deficiencies during an inspection in Puerto Natales in March. These included two related to safety of navigation matters.
Classification society Det Norske Veritas issued a passenger safety certificate for the vessel on October 21, the MCA said.
A UK maritime expert said: “Passengers had to wait in cold conditions in old-style open lifeboats.
“The vessel was not breaking any rules by having such lifeboats rather than the more-closed newer ones. But you have to question whether a vessel visiting icy waters with elderly passengers aboard was as equipped as it might have been.”
G.A.P. Adventures said the M/S Explorer “hit ice” in the Bransfield Strait off King George Island, Antarctica, at 5.24am UK time.
“The result was a hole about the size of a fist in the side of the hull so it began taking on water, but quite slowly,” said Toronto-based spokeswoman Susan Hayes.
She said all passengers and crew were safe and uninjured.
She said ice was obviously a “hazard of the area” but it was unusual that a ship hit ice and had never happened to the firm before.
The company said standard procedures were followed by the crew and passengers were calmly evacuated to the ship’s life rafts and then transferred to the NordNorge, which was in the area.
Mark Dickinson, assistant general secretary of maritime union Nautilus UK, said: “The growing trend to run cruises in increasingly exotic and remote locations, often in inherently dangerous conditions, is an issue of increasing concern.
“There are many questions about the suitability of some ships to operate in such potentially-adverse conditions, often well away from adequate search-and-rescue cover.”
The union said these issues needed to be addressed as part of a broader review of cruise ship safety, and that it had raised its concerns through the International Federation of Shipmasters’ Associations.