Almost 100 years after a young Argentine Navy Lieutenant succeeded in rescuing a Swedish scientific expedition stranded on Antarctica the vessel named after him set sail from Buenos Aires this morning on a rescue operation to free a German transport vessel trapped in the ice on the edge of Antarctica.
Shortly after 7am the Argentine Navy's 14.900-ton icebreaker ARA Almirante Irizar slipped its moorings in the port of Buenos Aires and set sail down the Argentine coast to its first port of call, the main naval base at Puerto Belgrano near Bahia Blanca, where it will load fuel and two Sea King search and rescue helicopters.
Once fully supplied the Irizar will sail south east on an emergency rescue operation to try to free the German supply vessel Magdalena Oldendorff trapped in the ice pack on the edge of the Prince Astrid Coast of Antarctica some 4.000 km (2.300 nautical miles) due south of Cape Town and 1.500 miles north of the South Pole.
Despite carrying an experienced ice pilot, Captain Ewald Brune, the Oldendorff was caught in the ice just off the Antarctic coast at longitude one degree East, longitude 69 degrees South on June 11while making its way back to South Africa after spending several months resupplying Russian research stations. Forty miles of rapidly closing pack ice now blocks its path to open waters.
The 21.000 ton ice class multi Ro-Ro vessel Magdalena Oldendorff, built in Germany in 1983, was originally known as the Nishneyansk when in service in the Barents Sea for Russian shipping company. The vessel, which is now owned by the German Oldendorff Group, is currently carrying a crew of 26 as well as 71 passengers, mainly Russian scientists returning from a year at Antarctic research stations.
According to vessel's captain, although the vessel is trapped in by the ice, it is in no immediate danger as it is in a sheltered bay, but is rapidly running out of supplies and the crew has been forced to ration available food stocks.
As the unpredictable Antarctic winter weather sets in the ship could become totally isolated from the outside world with little hope of receiving help if the Irizar is unable to break through the rapidly closing ice pack. Weather allowing, the Irizar could cut a passage to allow the German vessel to sail or be towed to open waters. Alternatively urgently needed supplies could be flown in by the Sea King helicopters which could also evacuate the passengers leaving a skeleton crew on board to man the vessel until the ice starts to break up with the coming of Spring in late September.
At a press conference held on the Irizar yesterday the head of the Argentine Navy's Antarctic Service, Captain Raul Benmuyal provided details of the rescue operation explaining that the Argentine Navy has been contracted by Oldendorff Carriers, the German shipbuilders owning the Magdalena Oldendorff to carry out this trip. "This operation is not costing the Argentine tax payer a single peso," he added in response to questions about the costs of the operation that is currently rated at one million dollars for the first stage only.
The Irizar, under Commander Hector Lavecchia and a crew of 135, is carrying some 80 tons of supplies and fuel for the Oldendorff, and hopes to be within 100 nautical miles of the stranded vessel by July 8. At that stage the Navy meteorologists and geologists aboard the icebreaker will take a decision whether to go ahead and try to break a passage through the ice to reach the Oldendorff or whether the vessel will have to be resupplied and the crew evacuated by air.
Benmuyal repeatedly underscored the difficulties being faced at trying to carry out a rescue operation in this area at this time of the year. "By the time we reach the area the temperature will have dropped to around minus 16Ãâ€šÃ‚Âº to 20Ãâ€šÃ‚Âº C, the chill factor up to minus 50Ãâ€šÃ‚Âº C. We have about one hour of light and two hours of twilight in which to carry out one of the most complex rescue operations in history" he indicated.
The Argentine Navy is only too aware of the dangers faced in Antarctica having lost one of its own vessels, the polar supply ship ARA Bahia Paraiso, after it grounded in a storm and subsequently sunk in Arthur Harbour, Antarctica in January 1989. At the time the Irizar headed emergency response actions and was able to make the wreck environmentally safe by offloading the fuel and other contaminating agents from the sunken wreck.
The head of the Argentine Navy's Antarctic operations stated that the Irizar's priorities were to get the Oldendorff back into open sea. If that failed the icebreaker would attempt to restock and refuel the vessel so it could get through the winter months ahead and - if all else failed - to try to evacuate the crew.
On reaching its station north of the stranded vessel the Irizar will rendezvous with the MV SA Agulhas, the 6.000 ton ice strengthened South African Antarctic Supply - Oceanographic Research Vessel, which rushed to the area last week carrying emergency supplies and fuel. Although the Agulhas cannot break through the ice it is carrying two helicopters with which to ferry supplies and fuel to the stranded vessel and evacuate crewmembers. Both vessels will then work together on a joint rescue operation.
The Irizar, which was built in Finland in the 1970's, is the only icebreaker currently available in the Southern Hemisphere. Over the last twenty years it has carried out 27 Antarctic campaigns and took part in several rescue operations in Antarctic waters. Benmuyal explained that while the initial stage of this operation was scheduled for duration of two months the Irizar is capable of spending up to 180 days trapped in the ice if necessary.
In 1982 the Argentine icebreaker played a prominent role in the 1982 Falklands War, landing Argentine Navy divers off the coast on April 2 and returning to Stanley in the closing days of the war as a hospital ship, finally returning to the mainland on 16 June 1982 carrying wounded Argentine servicemen.
The vessel is named after Argentine naval officer Julian Irizar who in 1903 successfully rescued Swedish geologist Otto Nordenskjold expedition from the Antarctic Peninsula after they had been stranded for over a year. At the helm of the British built, Argentine Navy corvette, Uruguay the then Lieutenant Irizar was able to rescue the members of the Swedish expedition, whose vessel Antarctic had been crushed by the ice, and return safely to a heroes welcome on the mainland.
Finally, it was announced today that the Swedish Arctic class icebreaker Oden has also set sail towards Antarctica from its Baltic Sea homeport. It is expected to rendezvous with the Irizar and the Agulhas in five week's time.
Nicholas Tozer ? Bs. Aires