The Explorer went down Friday off the South Shetland Islands. The ship had a double bottom but not a double hull and evidently the side was punctured by ice. A “fist-sized hole” resulted in it slowly taking on water and losing power which disabled the pumps. They abandoned ship after several hours and the passengers and crew were picked up by two other ships in the area after four hours on the water.
We took this ship to Antarctica six years ago (then owned by a different operator). It was a spectacular trip and one I highly recommend. Here are some photos of the Explorer in more buoyant times:
The passengers and crew were very lucky this happened in such calm seas.
They were between the Drake Passage, which is the stormiest water in the world, and the Antarctic Peninsula, which is much more sheltered. The seas could have been much rougher. We went through two Force 10 gales getting to and from Antarctica, which means 30 foot seas and 60 mile-per-hour winds. These photos don’t really do it justice but they were taken from the square windows above the red stripe on the hull and the waves are at or above the same level:
They were also lucky that there were other ships in the area. It is obviously incredibly isolated and ungoverned so there is no coast guard to call. Any human activity – a plane, ship or base – is transfixing for its rarity. Yet there is a very strong community amongst the tourists, adventurers, students and scientists running around down there. People would bum rides between different ships and bases and anyone would readily open their doors/hatches to visitors. There are a surprising number of smaller vessels down there and we detoured at one point to rescue some kayakers (and no one even questioned their sanity for being there). The Explorer was always good for providing a hot shower and a warm meal. In nearly forty years of Antarctic cruising, I am sure the Explorer banked some goodwill.
Ironically, the ship was on a cruise retracing some of Shackleton’s incredible voyage. His ship was crushed by the ice and he and his crew made it to the same South Shetlands, crossing ice and water in three small boats. Shackleton and five others then sailed 800 miles to South Georgia Island in an open boat, which is a spectacular feat of navigation, and doubly spectacular in stormy seas. If they’d missed South Georgia, the next stop was Africa. They landed on the uninhabited side of South Georgia so had to traverse a glacier-covered mountain range to get to the whaling station on the other side and then go back and rescue the rest of the crew. Everyone survived (although none probably ever wanted to eat penguin again). There is a great account of this epic journey with spell-binding pictures from the expedition’s photographer.