U.S. icebreaker Polar Star is on en route to free Xue Long after Australian authorities learnt that the Chinese antarctic vessel which evacuated passengers from the trapped Russian tourist ship Akademik Shokalskiy was beset with ice on Friday.
China’s icebreaker Xue Long played a pivotal role in last Thursday’s rescue mission. It deployed a helicopter to transport passengers of the distressed Russian ship to Aurora Australis, an Australian icebreaker nearby. All passengers safely boarded the vessel after five helicopter flights and the operation took seven hours in total.
However, Xue Long, with a crew of 101, found itself stuck in heavy pack ice after Aurora Australis left for Australian Antarctic base Casey Station. It sent out a distress call to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority the next day, and Aurora Australis was requested to remain in open waters on standby as a “precautionary measure”.
Reuters reported that the U.S. Coast Guard dispatched Polar Star, a 122-metre long icebreaker, to free Akademik Shokalskiy and Xue Long upon the requests of Australian authorities, as well as the Russian and Chinese governments.
With a maximum speed of 18 knots, the giant vessel will reach its destination seven days later. It can break six feet of ice at three knots non-stop, and 21 feet of ice backing and ramming. The rescue mission is expected to complete in two to three days.
Akademik Shokalskiy was carrying 48 passengers and 20 crew members on a trip that recreated the great explorer Sir Douglas Mawson’s voyage to Antarctica a century ago. Departing Bluff, New Zealand on December 8, the Russian ship had been stranded in pack ice since Christmas’s Eve.