Icy saga in Sea of Okhotsk nears end

The end is in sight for the final ice-bound ship that has been stuck off Russia's Far East coast. More than 300 crew members have endured a two-week ordeal, but are now being escorted through the frozen seas by two icebreakers.

However, according to the Head of the Federal Fisheries Agency, Andrey Krainy, the convoy only covered 1.5 miles when faced another problem: breaking towing cables.

“At the present time we are working through the towing techniques,” Interfax quoted him as saying.

It became possible to continue the rescue operation on Thursday morning after the breakage problem was fixed.

The “Admiral Makarov” and the “Krasin” had already led a smaller ship, the refrigerator vessel "Bereg Nadezhdy", to safer waters. Now both of them are in the Sea of Okhotsk rescuing a much larger supply vessel – the "Sodruzhestvo".

During the last few hours the "Sodruzhestvo", towed by the “Krasin”, has been following the “Admiral Makarov” icebreaker.

To fulfill the mission, the two icebreakers need to pick up the supply ship, get back to the refrigerator vessel that had been temporarily left in safer waters and together head for open water.

The "Bereg Nadezhdy" vessel remains adrift while waiting for the icebreakers’ arrival.

The major obstacle that had been complicating the rescue of the supply vessel is its size: the ship is much wider than any icebreaker. So the combined effort of the “Krasin” and the “Admiral Makarov” was required.

Helicopters were involved into the operation to help the captains find the best way out of the ice blockage. The situation has got a little bit better since severe north winds gave way to southerly winds, but experts are still reluctant to predict the end of the rescue operation. 

The total cost of the "Sodruzhestvo" and its cargo load is reported around US$32 million, while the cost of the multi-day rescue operation is estimated at $50,000. The local authorities have picked up the expenses. However, when mission is over, they are likely to demand reimbursement.

The Sea of Okhotsk, just off the far-eastern coast of Russia, is known to be a difficult place for ships to navigate in the winter, but the conditions have been greatly worsened by extreme weather this year. The ice thickness now varies in the area from 0.5 to 2 meters, and the temperature is -27 degrees Celsius, with strong northerly winds. Ferocious gales and very low temperatures have led to the formation of eight-meter-thick ice in some places, leaving the vessels simply unable to move.

Russia’s Transportation Ministry had warned sailors about the weather conditions in the area. However, some vessels still headed in the direction of the icy waters and became stranded.

Meanwhile, one of the stranded vessels, the “Professor Kizivetter” has successfully tied up at the city of Vladivostok.