The Case of the Little Red Ship


M/V Explorer - The Little Red Ship (Photo:Flickr Tribute)

Keywords,sinking,ice navigation

She was built for the adventures of a lifetime in one of the most survival-challenging, and vanishing environments on the planet with a reputation for the world’s worst weather. This adventure was the end of a lifetime among the icebergs for the Little Red Ship.

Listen To The Podcast



Shackleton's grave on South Georgia

In the first decades of the 20th century Sir Ernest Shackleton was a great explorer in an age of great Antarctic explorers. His courage and his remarkable leadership that kept his men alive under the most daunting conditions resonates even today. Management schools devote whole courses to studying him as a model for leaders of the future.

That is why 100 passengers board the 76 metre long, Liberian registered mv Explorer in the Argentine port of Ushuaia on 11 November 2007. They wanted to follow in the footsteps of Shackleton in the Antarctic, while it still has ice, and visit his solitary grave on the island of South Georgia.

They didn’t yet know it, but they were going to get rather more of a taste of the Shackleton experience than they bargained for.

Among the group are nine employees of GAP Shipping which owns MV Explorer and organises adventure tours. They’re known as the Expedition Group and their job is to act as tour guides and interpreters and to handle the ship’s ten Zodiac rigid inflatable boats, RIBs, to ferry passengers around at the various stops on the tour.


M/V Explorer waits at Ushuaia (Photo: Andy White)

Explorer was built in 1969 for the Swedish explorer Lars-Eric Lindblad for just this sort of journey. Indeed, this little red and white ship pioneered cruises in Antarctica. Now, 37 years later, she’s a veteran of these frigid waters and today has a crew of 54.

Her master, we’ll call him Ivan – not his real name – was not a veteran. This is the very first day that he boards her as master. He has full confidence in the Little Red Ship and his own competency in ice navigation, after all he’s had 25 years experience in ice navigation.

He’s served as Chief Officer on Explorer once before but this is his first voyage in the Antarctic as Master.

At 1855 there’s an emergency drill, telling passengers that they’ll muster in the lecture hall, and at 2100 departs Ushuaia on her voyage south to the Falklands, then South Georgia and an morning arrival on 23 November at Base Esperanza on the Trinity Peninsula, Antarctica.


King George's Island

Now it’s the evening of 22 November and Explorer is in the Bransfield Strait, which separates South Shetland Islands from the Antarctic peninsular. The master has realised that he’s not going to make Esperanza Base as scheduled and has laid a course for Penguin Island, near King George’s Island instead.

At 2000 the Safety Officer relieves the Chief Officer on watch. The master is in his cabin and occasionally looks out of his cabin window. Sometime over the next hour and three quarters, in the light of a setting sun, he sees an approaching icefield. His telephone rings at 2145: It’s the Safety Officer who tells him there’s an ice field ahead. The master says he’s already aware of it and is coming to the bridge.

Four passengers, two men and two women, and some of the expedition group have their dinner and go to the bridge to watch the transit through the icefield.

At 2146, the sun has finally set. The safety officer turns on the searchlights mounted on the flying bridge and reduces speed to 5 knots.

The master arrives on the bridge and takes the conn. Looking out at the icefield and assesses it as first year ice, no more than one winter old.

As the ship enters the ice field one of the passengers on the bridge says: “The captain is certainly earning his money tonight”.

Laying in his own cabin, the chief officer’s sleep is disturbed by the sound of ice rumbling and growling and echoing against the hull. He abandons sleep and heads up to the bridge.

There are no icebergs nearby but a few glisten on the horizon in the faint Antarctic light. The vessel is surrounded by ice.

At 2245, the chief officer returns to his cabin to try and sleep.


The Little Red Ship - passing through ice was noisy

Down in cabin 314 a passenger on the lower bunk has been warned that going through ice is going to be noisy. He puts on headphones to drown it out.

Looking out a passenger sees red paint on the ice they’re passing through.

Ahead, a passenger on the bridge see what she calls a long wall of solid ice and she’s surprised at now fast the ship seems to be moving.

Meanwhile, the master attempts to manoeuvre the ship through patches of open water until, suddenly, the ship comes to dead stop against ice that won’t give way.

It’s about 2300 and below, in a passenger cabin, a passenger hears a loud bang, followed by a second bang. Another passenger who was cleaning her teeth was thrown hard against the sink by a large jolt.

Ivan has experience and he knows the ship may be small, but it’s tough. This little Red Ship was, after all, the first cruise ship to negotiate the North West Passage in 1984, the first to circumnavigate James Ross Island. History was on her side.

The Master, Ivan, put her stern, then forward, using the ship’s hardened bow as a battering ram to beat it’s way through the ice.


"A wall of ice..."

Down in cabin 314 the passenger with the headphones puts his fingers down between the gap between his bunk and a panel. There’s a thunk, and, in the darkness, his fingers are trapped. And there’s the sound of water running. The pressure eases and his withdraws his hand. A passenger on the upper bunk asks if he can hear the sound of running water, too.

He reaches for the light switch, it’s wet and doesn’t work. There’s a foot of water in the cabin. He pushes the passenger alarm.

On the bridge Ivan turns to the helmsman to explain what he’s doing a passenger cabin alarm sounds on the bridge on level 300, the lowest passenger cabin level in the hull, but not the specific cabin. The master isn’t worried, its probably just a passenger setting it off by accident.

About then, an AB came onto the bridge to report for his midnight to 0400 watch. Ivan sends him down to checkout the alarm. Minute later the AB calls the bridge – there’s flooding in cabin 314. Ivan sends the safety officer down to cabin 314 with a walkie-talkie to find out whether the water is fresh or salty. In this cold maybe a fresh water pipe has burst.

Moments later the safety officer come back on the radio. The water is salt.

Ivan goes down to cabin 314. It’s not a ruptured pipe, it’s a hole in hull. He returns to the bridge: “This” he says, “is serious”. On the PA system he orders a damage control team to deck three and tells them it is not a drill. He tells passengers to muster in the Penguin Lounge with warm clothing and lifejackets and sounds the general alarm at 0013.

Down in the engine room the second assistant engineer is wrapping up his 2000 to midnight watch and completing the engine room log. There’s a loud and ominous bang and he tells the oiler to check out the engine room spaces. The third assistant engineers comes to report for his watch. As they discuss the handover, at about 0010, the telephone rings: and the third assistant engineer answers it: it’s the bridge telling them of the flooding on the third deck. The second engineer calls the chief engineer to tell him about the flooding then the second engineer goes to the cabins of two of the fitters to tell them to report to cabin 314 for damage control.

When the second engineer gets back he gets the report from the oiler: The water level in the separator room is increasing rapidly. The second engineer goes to cabin 314 as part of the damage control team.

More alarms go off in the engine control room: The bilges are filling.

Water is flowing down into the separator room from the overhead and the watertight door to the generator room is open. The third engineer goes to the main engine room to start to ejector pump to empty the bilges, then goes to the Engine control room where the oiler finds him and tells him that the separator room is filling quickly. The third assistant engineer tells the oiler to close the watertight door to the generator room.

On the bridge Ivan tells the radio operator to send a distress signal then uses an Iridium satellite phone to call for help. Two other cruise ships are nearby, NordeNorge and Endeavour. Meanwhile a Spanish-speaking member of the expedition group, a Zodiac driver, tries to persuade the Argentine MRCC that Explorer is in trouble. Again and again they tell him to call back and repeat the same information. No-one at Argentine MRCC takes the call seriously.

Eventually, MRCC Argentina finds someone to pass the problem to and appoints the master of the cruiseship NordNorge as ‘on scene commander’.

Meanwhile the passengers in cabin 314 have gathered up their gear and passengers in adjacent cabins have moved out.

Explorer has taken on a starboard list of around five or six degrees and all four of the starboard cabins on deck three zero zero are flooding and there’s the swishing sound of water between the decorative panelling and the side of the hull.

Submersible pumps are brought to Cabin 314. More pumps are now at work in the engine room extracting water from the separator room where it’s now a half metre deep on the starboard side.

In cabin 314 two crewmembers, an oiler and a ship’s carpenter, are trying desperately to find the source of the leak. They have to move a bunk to get at the decorative panelling but the bolts are now below freezing cold seawater water and the oiler’s hand are so cold he can hardly feel the boltheads – he’s not even sure he’s getting the bolts out.

They succeed in unbolting and moving the bunk then use a fireaxe to smash out a section of panelling. They still couldn’t see the source of the leak. Cautiously the oiler reaches into the water-filled space, worried that his numbed hands could be ripped by sharp metal edges. He feels the pressure of water flowing in from what he thinks is a fist-sized hole. The assessment goes up the chain of command to the master, Ivan, as the oiler and the carpenter stuff pillows into the space, backed them with a piece of plywood and fixed a metal bar to hold every in place against hole.

The water still kept coming in. Explorer was listing about 5 or six degrees.

A Zodiac is launched with the bosun aboard to try and locate the hole in the hull but it’s underwater and attempts to cover it with tarpaulin fail.

The master tries to bring the wind to bear on the starboard side to counteract the starboard list but this, too, fails.

After an hour of pumping the water levels in the cabins fell. With a sense of relief the master goes to the Penguin lounge and tells the mustered passengers that the flooding is under control.

In fact, the water is going through downflooding ducts into the separator room immediately below the cabins on deck three zero zero and streaming through the seals of the watertight door into the generator room.


Despite the efforts of engineers the list worsened

The chief engineer realises that if the rapidly rising water in the separator room reaches the breaker panel. It is already up to the third rung of the ladder in the escape trunk from the separator room. If power fails the fuel transfer pumps feeding the main engine and the generator will stop within 15 to 20 minutes and main engine cooling will stop and the main engine would have to be shut down. The chief engineer has a pump taken from the cabins and rigged to pump out the separator room.

Next he pulls his engine room crew together, he has a plan to reroute the fuel but before they can get the equipment together the fuel to the generators runs out. The main engine, then then the generators are shut down plunging the ship into darkness.

It’s bad timing. There’s an iceberg approaching and the ship is drifting back into the ice, which will make launching the lifeboats impossible. By 0235 Explorer is listing up to 18 degrees and Ivan has decided to abandon ship as a precaution. He must have power from the bow thruster to manoeuvre the vessel and he needs it now.

He doesn’t yet believe the ship is doomed. His plan is to use pumps from NordeNorge and Endeavour to clear water from Explorer.

The engineering team get fuel into a gravity feed tank and down into a generator. It takes another 20 minutes to get the first generator running and supply power. The remaining two generators were started, then the main engine.

With power restored, the passengers are evacuated into the lifeboats on the calm, cold sea.

Meanwhile, water still enters the generator room through the leaking seals of the watertight door to the separator room, where water is coming down from the cabins above. The first assistant engineer wants to close bilge suction to the separator room to increase the discharge from the flooded starboard side of the generator room. There’s a problem: the suction line is still open to the separator room and the electric motor operating the suction valve is in the separator room and once the water reaches it, it will short-out and die. There won’t be enough suction to control the rising water level in the generator room.

Checking passenger and crew cabins on the boat deck and two zero zero th chief engineer find water overflowing into them from the toilets and flooding the whole area. The third assistant engineer tells him that the water has reached the base of generator number three and he orders it shut down.

He already knows that the ship is lost, goes to the bridge and tells the master.

The engine crew are mustered on the bridge and accounted for and once the master is satisfied that they are all there they evacuate into the Zodiacs.


The final insult: the CPPs drive her astern

Ivan, and the GAP expedition leader wait on the bridge for the arrival of NordeNorge and Endeavour but before that happens, fate has one final insult in store for the little red ship.

Her main engine is still running and she listing at around 20 degrees to starboard. Without warning the controllable pitch propeller went astern driving the ship backwards at up to eight knots. Ivan hits the emergency stop switch but it doesn’t stop the main engine or the generators. The only people who could possibly have fixed the problem were riding in Zodiacs out on the frigid sea.

Ivan and the expedition leader decide it is time to go. They make their way to the forecastle deck where a Zodiac takes them off.

The end of a lifetime in the ice for the Little Red Ship

At 1530 on 23 November, the little red ship begins its last journey, a one thousand three hundred metre plunge to the sea bottom.

The Little Red Ship was built for the ice so perhaps her final resting place is more noble than being picked to pieces on an Indian shore. Yet how could a vessel designed for those specific conditions be lost in that way? No lives were lost, was that luck or good preparation? We’ll find out in Part Two of the Case of the Little Red Ship.

The Case of the Little Red Ship Part 2