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Seattle-based ship and crew on rescue mission to Antarctica

The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star, seen here in 1999, has been sent to help free Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy and Chinese icebreaker Xue Long. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

Australian researchers had their mission to Antarctica cut short when the Russian ship they were aboard got stuck in thick sheets of sea ice.

It took several rescue attempts to get the passengers safely onto a ship that could carry them home, but the crew remains at sea. The rescue efforts have also led to a second vessel, a Chinese ice cutter, stranded nearby.

Now, a Seattle-based Coast Guard ship is on its way to help.

The “Polar Star” has a crew of 134 Seattle-based Coast Guard members. They are in the midst of a mission to resupply and refuel a station in Antarctica run by the National Science Foundation.

The Coast Guard received the call for help as the Polar Star was stopped in Sydney, Australia. On Sunday, they started making their way south again, this time with the added mission of freeing the two trapped ships.

“They’ve run into some pretty nasty weather just getting down to the Antarctic,” says Chief Warrant Officer Allyson Conroy. “Once they get on scene, of course, they’re going to run into just a little bit of ice.”

The plan is for the Polar Star to break a path through the ice so the Russian and Chinese ships can head for home under their own steam.

The Coast Guard ice cutter has just completed a three year, $90-million overhaul. It has a reinforced hull and a special ice breaking bow.

“It can break up to six feet of ice at three knots and up to 21 feet of ice as it goes back and forth, backs and rams,” Conroy says.

The sea around Antarctica typically has ice about three to six feet thick, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, but it can get as thick as 15 feet in spots.

Is the Polar Star worried it might also get stuck?

“There’s always concern,” says Conroy. “However, the Polar Star is built for this type of mission, and we feel good that we’ll be able to get on scene, be able to break a path to the vessels and get them out.”

Conroy says it will only add a day or two to the length of their mission, but it could add substantial cost. But, she says they’re not really worried about that right now. They’re more concerned with the lives out at sea and making sure they all make it home safely.

“Our primary concern is the safety of life at sea, and that’s why we’re answering the call,” says Conroy. “To make sure that all of these lives that are, sort of, stuck in the ice are able to come home safe and sound.”

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