The 63-metre (207-foot) “Antarctic Chieftain” became stuck in ice and damaged its propeller last Tuesday in the remote Southern Ocean.
The US Coastguard icebreaker “Polar Star” was sent to help and reached the ship over the weekend, breaking it free and towing it part-way clear of the ice.
The icebreaker’s commander, captain Matthew Walker, said if his vessel had not arrived in time the trawler would have been trapped for the winter some 900 nautical miles (1,650 kilometres) from the nearest polar base.
Walker said the “Antarctic Chieftain’s” crew would probably not have survived such an ordeal.
“She was beset in ice and there was no way she was going to break out of there and she would have had to winter over,” he told Radio New Zealand, referring to the ship.
“I doubt she would have had the ability to do that because of fresh water, food and fuel… When we arrived, we represented basically saving their (the crew’s) lives.”
He said the coast guard’s ship had forced its way through ice up to 10 metres (33 feet) thick.
Walker said the trawler was almost out of the ice fields and sailing under its own power, but the icebreaker would stay nearby until the “Antarctic Chieftain” met the New Zealand-flagged fishing vessel “Janas”, likely tomorrow.
The “Janas” will then escort the freed ship to the port of Nelson on New Zealand’s South Island.
The “Antarctic Chieftain”, built in 2002, is licenced to trawl for Patagonian toothfish, a slow-growing species that lives in the punishing cold of the Antarctic waters.
The ship’s owners, Australian Longline, said on their website that the vessel spends six months at a time in the Southern Ocean fishing for the prized species, known as “white gold” for the profits it can yield.
A South Korean toothfish trawler sank in the same area in 2010 with the loss of 22 lives, prompting a New Zealand coroner’s inquiry last year to call for tighter safety standards on ships plying the icy waters. (AFP)