Passengers head home after icy Antarctic rescue

Rescued from lifeboats in Antarctic waters, passengers from a doomed Canadian-owned cruise ship are on their way home.

12 Canadians were among 154 aboard Canadian-owned ship

Rescued from lifeboats in Antarcticwaters, passengers from a doomed Canadian-owned cruise ship are on their way home.

Passengers from the Explorer arrive on King George Island, Antarctica, after their ship hit ice and started to sink. ((Chilean Navy/Associated Press))

Twelve Canadians are among the 154 people rescued after the 75-metre-long MS Explorer struck ice Friday and began taking on water.Thevessel sank about 20 hours later,but all aboard were saved.

The passengers were taken by ship to bases on an island off the Antarctic coast.Most were flown to mainland Chile Saturday to begin their unscheduled journey home.

John Cartwright, 70, of Ottawa thought he was going on the birdwatching trip of a lifetime until the ship started sinking andthe passengers, tour staff and crewtook to lifeboats.

"We were out on the cold, cold ocean," he told CBC News. "We were a little worried as to how long it was going to take some of these other ships to reach us.

"Fortunately there were three cruise ships in the area within five or six hours.… We were greatly relieved when a helicopter came out to look at us, and then a little while later somebody spotted the lookout light of a ship bearing down on us."

After the rescue, he said, "We feel very relieved now. We're all sort of unwinding and happy to be up here warm and dry."

The Explorer, owned by Toronto-based G.A.P Adventures, was completing a tour of Antarctica when the accident happened in Bransfield Strait between theSouth Shetland Islandsand Antarctica.

All people aboard the Canadian-owned Explorer were rescued early Friday after the cruise ship was damaged by ice off Argentina. ((Chilean Navy/Associated Press))

"The passengers are absolutely fine," said Susan Hayes, the travel agency's vice-president of marketing. "They're all accounted for. No injuries whatsoever."

The Norwegiancruise shipNordnorge responded to a distress call and picked up the stranded passengers and crew.It took them to King George Island in the South Shetlands, where they were housed in Chilean and Uruguayan military bases.

Despite being in lifeboats for several hours in rough waters, none of the passengers suffered hypothermia, said Arnvid Hansen, captain of the Nordnorge.

The Explorer was carrying 154 people — 91 passengers, nine expedition staff members and a crew of 54. Ten passengers and two expedition staff are Canadian, Hayes told CBC News.

Forecasters told the Press Association that temperatures in the area were around –5 C, while sea temperatures were around –1 C.

The evacuation process was"very smooth andcalm"since passengers had several hours to leave the vessel as bilge pumps removed water, Hayes said.

Passengers aboard the ship included 24 British nationals, 17 Dutch, 14 Americans and 10 Australians, the travel agency said.

There were also passengers from Argentina, Denmark, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, Switzerland, Sweden and Colombia.

The first distress call from the Explorer was received by an Argentine rescue and command centre around midnight ET, said Capt. Juan Pablo Panichini, an Argentine navy spokesman.

About 90 minutes after the call, the Explorer captain ordered passengers to abandon ship, and they boarded eight semi-rigid lifeboats and four life-rafts, according to a navy statement. The captain left later.

With files from the Canadian Press and the Associated Press