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Why did an Antarctic cruise ship sink?

Big ice chunks, misjudgment, and faulty doors doomed the MS Explorer. New limits are set on tourists and cruise ships to the region.

By Colin WoodardCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 20, 2009

The MS Explorer anchored in the iceberg-strewn waters at Ilullisat, Greenland in September 2007. The vessel sank the following November while traversing sea ice off Antarctica.

Colin Woodard/FILE


The MS Explorer was purpose-built for the Antarctic, a nimble expedition cruise ship with an ice-reinforced hull that pioneered the polar tourism trade in the early 1970s.

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But on Nov. 23, 2007, she sank in what appeared to be the most routine of Antarctic circumstances: cruising through young pack ice in mild weather.

The 154 passengers and crewmen aboard were plucked unharmed from open lifeboats by other cruise ships the following day, just two hours before gale-force winds struck the area.

Until now, the causes of the ship's sinking have remained a mystery, with her owners, Toronto-based G.A.P Adventures, refusing to comment beyond initial reports that she struck submerged ice and succumbed to uncontrollable flooding.

But last week the results of an official investigation became public. It places blame on the captain having misjudged ice conditions and the failure of one of the ships' watertight doors.

The report by the Liberian Bureau of Maritime Affairs, through which the Explorer was flagged, described how the ship was damaged after the captain attempted to plow through what one passenger described as "a long wall of solid ice," presumably a ridge of broken ice forced up by pressure.

The report – which vividly illustrated how a single misjudgment can lead to disaster in the harsh, poorly charted waters of Antarctica – made a series of recommendations to improve safety on polar cruises. Among them: that these ships carry at least partially-enclosed lifeboats and enough immersion suits for everyone aboard, and that training requirements for ice navigation be better spelled out. Currently, the International Maritime Organization doesn't have formal competency training requirements for ice navigators.

Mind the glacial ice chunks

A Chilean naval icebreaker that reached the scene shortly after the Explorer's passengers were rescued, concluded that the ship had not been traveling through a thin ice field, as her captain had thought, but rather an older, thicker field containing a mix of dangerous glacial ice chunks, some reportedly as large as 15 feet high with underwater rams as long as 45 feet.

The Explorer "sustained puncture and slice wounds" that extended for more than eleven feet along her hull and sank because flooding could not be contained within the affected watertight compartment, the report said. Crew members told investigators that a hatch between engine rooms turned out to have faulty seals, allowing other parts of the ship to flood.

The report concluded that Bengt Wiman, on his first Antarctic cruise as captain, "transited the ice field with an overconfident attitude regarding the capabilities of the Explorer and, in all likelihood, struck the 'wall of ice' at a rate of speed that was excessive."

Tighter rules for Antarctic ships

The report was released as representatives of the 45 signatory nations to the Antarctica Treaty were attending their annual meeting in Baltimore where they tightened some regulations on cruise ships. The Explorer report caused "a big shock" at the meeting, says James Barnes, executive director of the Washington-based Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition.