Coast Guard rescues 12 UNIS students, staff from damaged and waterlogged boat after hours in -20C cold


A dozen students and staff at The University Centre in Svalbard spent seven bitterly cold and wet hours in a small boat at sea Friday – most of them pumping out water from a leak that caused the engines to fail – before being rescued by the Norwegian Coast Guard, according to officials.

The students and staff were returning to Longyearbyen from a weeklong field research project in Barentsburg, but the ten-meter-long boat suddenly became heavy at the front and unresponsive to steering, Prof. Roland Kallenborn, the project’s leader, told Svalbardposten. He said the leak was discovered soon after, with water from one-meter-high waves seeping into the boat.

Both engines failed shortly afterward due to the leak, according to a prepared statement issued by the university.

“It was about 20 degrees below zero in the air, and most of us were wet,” Kallenborn told Svalbardposten. “We tried our best to keep warm and retrieved warm clothing from our luggage. After that I realized one of the boat’s three float chamber was filled with water.”

Those aboard the boat used manual pumps to remove water while the captain notified The Governor of Svalbard, which dispatched the K/V Svalbard to the scene. It took about two hours for the Coast Guard ship to reach the UNIS group, which had already been at sea for five hours before the distress call.

A voyage between the settlements aboard such a boat typically takes about two hours.

Although equipment and samples from the project are damaged, there were no injuries or lasting effects from the cold, according to university officials, who say an investigation into the incident is planned.

“The safety of our students and staff is paramount for UNIS and we are grateful that no one came to harm during this serious incident,” UNIS Director Harald Ellingsen said in a prepared statement. “We are also grateful for the assistance from the Norwegian Coast Guard.”

“This is a serious incident and UNIS will investigate the matter thoroughly in the coming days to determine the cause of the breakdown and what can be done to prevent such situations in the future.”