Southern rescue mission saves Sparta

Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 39, March 2012

The Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) headed an international search and rescue mission to save the crew of a stricken Russian fishing vessel deep in the Southern Ocean.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
The damaged Sparta with 32 crew on board, spent 13 days next to the Antarctic ice shelf.

RCCNZ launched the mission on 16 December after its Norwegian counterpart passed on a mayday call from Sparta. As well as being holed and taking on water, it was on a threatening 13 degree list. The damaged vessel, with 32 crew on board, was next to the Antarctic ice shelf, about 2,000 nautical miles (3,704 kilometres) south-east of New Zealand.

While the crew used a pump and temporary patches made out of tarpaulin to battle leaks below Sparta’s waterline, RCCNZ was tasking nearby vessels to provide assistance.

Sel Jevaer
Norwegian vessel Sel Jevaer was one of the vessels that responded to the distress call.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

“With various people and agencies from Norway, New Zealand, the United States, South Korea and Russia responding to the call for help, this truly was an international search and rescue effort,” said MNZ’s General Manager Safety Services, Nigel Clifford.

Among the responding vessels were Sparta’s sister ship Chiyo Maru No. 3, the New Zealand San Aspiring and the Norwegian Sel Jevaer. Sparta’s owners also chartered the ice-strengthened South Korean Araon to provide assistance.

Due to their distance away and the heavy sea ice in the area, it was considered unlikely the vessels would reach Sparta in time to help. Sparta’s crew were in a race against the clock and the freezing elements to repair the stricken ship and right the dangerous list.

Nigel said, “As we’ve found through past experience of coordinating rescues below 60 degrees south, one of the biggest challenges is the extreme isolation of the area, as well as the severe weather that can be experienced and the often limited ability of other vessels to provide help.”

With the nearest on-water assistance days away, aerial assistance was sought. The United States Antarctic Programme at McMurdo Station sent a Hercules aircraft to fly over Sparta, to assess the ice conditions and gather information to help speed up the rescue.

As Sparta’s crew gradually stabilised the vessel, RCCNZ tasked a New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) C130 Hercules to drop much-needed equipment and fuel to the ship.

“With pinpoint accuracy, the crew of the Hercules dropped these all-important supplies on the ice right next to the vessel,” said Nigel. “The pumps supplied allowed the crew to keep ahead of the incoming water and the extra equipment dropped helped in the attempts to fix the patches more securely.”

Keeping the water at bay while attaching patches to the hull posed further problems. RCCNZ tasked a second NZDF Hercules to drop more pumps, patches and other equipment, which allowed the crew to stabilise the vessel and make more permanent repairs. With the arrival of Araon and Chiyo Maru No. 3, fuel and provisions were transferred.

Thirteen days after calling for help, Sparta sailed clear of the ice, thanks to the resourcefulness of the crew and the assistance of vessels, aircraft and people from many different countries and organisations.

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