Sinking of ice-strengthened cruise ship in the Antarctic leaves experts puzzled

In general when something like that happens, we suspect that there was something else that happened we weren’t informed about.
Sander Calisal,
Professor emeritus
University of British Columbia

Many questions remain unanswered following the sinking of the cruise ship Explorer (ex Lindblad Explorer, Society Explorer) in the Antarctic Ocean near the South Shetland Islands about 475 nautical miles southeast of Ushuaia, Argentina.

Explorer was apparently holed by an iceberg in the early hours of Nov. 23. Within hours the order was given to abandon ship. All 154 passengers and crew were safely evacuated into lifeboats and rescued by another cruise ship, the 11,386-gross-ton Nordnorge.

The 250-foot double-hull ship was built in Finland in 1969 and had a reinforced hull designed for operation in ice. Yet Explorer sank just 20 hours after sustaining what was initially reported to be a “fist sized hole” in the hull.

How could a ship of such robust design succumb so quickly?

Sander Calisal, professor emeritus of naval architecture and mechanical engineering at the University of British Columbia, said that a minor collision with an iceberg should not sink a ship such as Explorer, which was designed to sail in extreme conditions. Calisal suspects there is probably more to the story than has been told.

“In general when something like that happens, we suspect that there was something else that happened we weren’t informed about,” he said. “My gut feeling is that they lost power, probably that there was some partial flooding followed by electrical problems, loss of power to the pumps and the possibility of a fire on board with an accumulating of water. You add all these things up and they will be detrimental to the stability of the ship. The ship lost stability and sank.”

“The modern way of examining these things is what we call the tree analysis,” he continued. “Something happened, but then it branched to something else, then it branched to something else.”

Calisal assumes that the captain was fully aware of the condition of the ship before he ordered the passengers to leave the ship. “He knew that there was not only a hole, but something else that went wrong. I’m pretty sure something else also happened and the captain knew it very well and was able to order the abandoning of the ship,” he said.

Calisal said that by all indications the ship was well designed for the Antarctic and that it was well maintained. He doubts that the double-hull construction made it difficult to detect corrosion that could have compromised the hull’s structural integrity.

“Normally we don’t design any non-accessible section of a ship,” he said. “A relatively small person can go in and inspect and take necessary action for corrosion or rust control.”

The 2,393-gross-ton Explorer was owned and operated by GAP Adventures Worldwide in Toronto, Canada.

Leif Skog, vice president for marine operations at Lindblad Expeditions and former captain of Explorer, told the Christian Science Monitor that the ship was “outstanding in her design, perfect for ice navigation. It’s very unlikely that pack ice caused this.”

Steamship Mutual, which insured the vessel, and the Chilean Navy are both conducting investigations into what caused the sinking.

By Professional Mariner Staff