Their torturous journey home stalled yesterday on the remote King George Island, where they were trapped by gale-force winds that prevented planes from landing. Earlier, storm conditions had forced their rescue ship to wait out in choppy seas until it was safe to make dock.
Finally at 7.30pm a Chilean air force Hercules was able to land and 50 of the passengers, many still wearing their orange survival suits and clutching life jackets, filed aboard for the three-hour return leg to Punta Arenas. The rest were due to leave today, weather permitting, said John Warner of GAP Adventures, which owns the ship.
The 154 passengers and crew were holed up in spartan bases on the island belonging to the armies of Chile and Uruguay. They include 24 British men and women. Of those, 14 had paid 5,600 each for a berth on the 19-day trip called the Spirit of Shackleton. But eight days from its end, their journey suddenly offered a more realistic taste of the icy dangers faced by Sir Ernest, the polar explorer who died on an Antarctic expedition, than the brochure had promised.
Once on the South American mainland, they will still be more than 8,000 miles from home.
Despite the frustrations, the mood was upbeat. "We're sitting around drinking cups of tea," Gillian Plant told the BBC
In her lifeboat, a Danish couple had even got engaged. "He had planned to propose to his girlfriend that evening but he actually took the ring with him and proposed to her in the lifeboat. She accepted and they're going somewhere hot and sunny for their honeymoon," said Ms Plant, 40, of Manchester.
The survivors are all reportedly unhurt, with no hypothermia. They have only what they are wearing: all other personal effects were lost with the Explorer, which the Chilean navy says has sunk from sight.
But even as that was being confirmed yesterday, a television producer was telephoning GAP Adventures to ask for the right to film the salvage operation. "We haven't thought that far ahead," said Dan Brown, GAP Adventure's UK spokesman.
The Explorer had a gym, sauna and lecture hall, where ornithologists and naturalists helped pass-engers to understand the wildlife they were seeing on the trip to the edge of the polar ice mass.
In 1969, the Explorer was the first ship to be built specifically for Antarctic tourism. But its reinforced double hull was punctured by ice 75 miles north of the Antarctic peninsula.
Witnesses described a slight bump nofollowed by a much greater bang.
Passengers were called to the muster station at 1am as attempts were made to pump out the water, but then the engine stopped and the lights went out as the electricity failed. At 3am the call went out to abandon ship.
John Cartwright said: "We all got a little nervous when the ship began to list sharply and the lifeboats still hadn't been lowered." They soon were though, into "fairly rough seas and strong winds". The pre-dawn temperature was -5C.
"It was pretty horrific," said Raymond King, 67, of Belfast. "It was cold, it was wet, it was scary. But no one was injured and we are in good heart, looking forward to going home.".
Ms Plant said: "If we'd had bad weather it would have possibly been a different story. What was reassuring was when we saw the helicopter fly around twice."
Yesterday it was reported that inspectors from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency had found five faults with the ship when it docked in Scotland in May. But the agency said these were fixed before it was allowed to sail. The Argentinian navy said seas were calm and winds light at the time of the accident. "It could have been a tragedy," said a spokesman. "Instead it was a lucky misfortune." (c) 2007 Independent on Sunday, The. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.
[Source: Independent on Sunday]