‘At the very edge of the possible’: 14 crew members rescued in dangerous Arctic winter conditions from fishing boat in northeast Svalbard


Fourteen people stranded on a listing fishing trawler isolated in northeast Svalbard were successfully rescued Friday by helicopters operating in dark and hazardous winter storm condition, according to emergency officials.


The Northguider tralwer was stranded in a strait at nearly 80 degrees north latitude. Map courtesy of the Norwegian Polar Institute.

A distress signal was sent at 1:22 p.m. by the 47-meter-long  Northguider because it was listing heavily, and ended up aground and up against the ice in Hinlopenstredet, from other vessels and settlements in the archipelago. Both rescue helicopters belonging to The Governor of Svalbard were immediately deployed, with one rescuing 10 crew members at about 3 p.m. and the other helicopter rescuing the remaining crew by 4 p.m.

The northernmost portion of Svalbard is in the midst of a nearly four-month-long polar night, and a video of a helicopter rescuer descending to the vessel shows heavy snow hampering efforts.

“This is a rescue operation at the very edge of the possible,” said Mads Gilbert, a emergency clinic consultant the University Hospital of Northern Norway who spoke to the rescuers, in an interview with NRK. “A formidable effort from the 11 professionals on the two helicopters. They have today saved 14 lives at 80 degrees north in stiff breeze and dense snow with a temperature of minus 23 degrees.…So far from civilization that it would have taken the Coast Guard an entire day to get there.”

The long flight meant rescuers were also operating under severe time limits to ensure they had sufficient fuel to return to civilization, Gilbert said.

Officials from The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre of Northern Norway participated in the operation, and an Orionfly from Andøya Air Station on the mainland was also called out to the scene.

“The incident shows that we need the rescue resources we have available,” Gov. Kjerstin Askholt said in a prepared statement.

The crew members were brought to Longyearbyen Hospital for examination, but none suffered serious harm, according to a press release by the governor.

The primary concern now is the 330 tons of marine fuel the ship is carrying. The vessel is stranded in a protected nature reserve, and Askholt said officials from her office, the Norwegian Coastal Administration and the Norwegian Coast Guard, which is sending its KV Barentshav to the site, are now coordinating a quick-response containment and removal operation.

“What is the big danger is that it starts to leak oil and other things that are on the boat in an area that is very vulnerable,” she said.