The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Polar Star was heading home to Seattle from a monthlong Antarctic mission when the call for help came in.
An Australian fishing vessel was trapped in Antarctic ice up to 9 feet deep, with three of the four blades in its propeller damaged. The 26-member crew of the Antarctic Chieftain hadn't seen any ice movement in five days, said Lt. Donnie Brzuska, public affairs officer for the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post said that there were 27 crew members aboard the Antarctic Chieftain; there are 26. Also, it said that three of its four propellers had been damaged; the vessel has a single propeller, and three of its four blades have been damaged.
The crew is not in danger and the vessel's hull is undamaged, according to Maritime New Zealand, which is responsible for search-and-rescue missions in New Zealand.
The call to the Polar Star came at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Brzuska told the Los Angeles Times. By 10 p.m., the ship and its 150-member crew was headed for the marooned vessel, more than 330 miles away. The cutter should arrive on scene by 7 p.m. PST on Thursday.
A challenging environment awaits, with 35-mph winds and heavy snow, Brzuska said. The cutter must break through 6- to 9-foot-thick ice just to reach the trapped vessel.
Then the real work begins: freeing the Antarctic Chieftain.
"It's going to be a long process, and just based on the sheer geographic distance and the environment, it's going to be a really complex rescue mission from start to finish," Brzuska said. "The Antarctic is an unforgiving and treacherous place, and so any kind of rescue operation is pretty complex and very difficult."
The Polar Star is one of the largest ships in the Coast Guard, and the nation's only heavy icebreaker capable of breaking through the Antarctic ice, the Coast Guard said in a statement.
The 399-foot cutter weighs about 15,000 gross tons -- more than 33 million pounds -- and uses its weight to break the ice, Brzuska said, chopping it into pieces with its propellers. The ship shakes and shudders throughout the process.
Once the Antarctic Chieftain is free, a New Zealand-registered fishing vessel will escort or tow it to the nearest harbor, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
Brzuska said this was the Coast Guard's first Antarctic rescue of a fishing vessel in such a dire situation since at least 2007.