Stricken Russian boat sailing from Antarctic ice

In this photo released by Maritime New Zealand, the Russian fishing vessel Sparta is seen in waters in the Ross Sea near Antarctica, Dec. 16, 2011. AP

WELLINGTON, New Zealand - A Russian fishing boat that was stuck for 12 days while in danger of sinking in the frigid waters off Antarctica began a trek through 100 miles (160 kilometers) of sea ice to open water on Wednesday, New Zealand officials said.

The Sparta hit underwater ice Dec. 16 that tore a 1-foot (30-centimeter) hole in its hull. Heavy ice in the Ross Sea prevented help from reaching the stricken vessel for 10 days, forcing the Sparta's crew to pump out near-frozen sea water to keep the ship afloat while awaiting rescue. At one point, some of the crew boarded life rafts. The crew has 15 Russians, 16 Indonesians and one Ukrainian.

The South Korean icebreaker Araon finally arrived on Monday, and repairs to the hole were completed by Wednesday morning, New Zealand's Rescue Coordination Center said. The Araon then began escorting the Sparta through the ice and toward the open ocean.

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Both ships are expected to clear the ice pack within 12 hours of moving, rescue center spokesman Chris Henshaw said.

"The inside (of the hull hole) has been all fixed up — they used a cement box to fill it in," Henshaw told New Zealand's National Radio. A cement box provides a temporary fix to the torn steel plating to make the vessel seaworthy.

The crew had not been able to weld a steel plate over the hole because of safety concerns, he said.

The Araon, a polar research ship, will guide the Sparta to ice-free open ocean about 100 miles (160 kilometers) away, where it will be joined by its sister ship for the 2,200-mile (3,700 kilometer) journey to the New Zealand port of Lyttelton. It will dry dock there for permanent repairs, Henshaw said.

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