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Lars-Eric Lindblad's cruise ship was an oddball. Next to a Cunard Liner, the Explorer looked like a tugboat - it was 75 metres long, with a displacement of 2,400 tons. But to the cognoscenti, this was a very special ship: The M/S Explorer had two hulls, nested inside each other like a submarine's, and the interior was fitted with laboratories and classrooms.

Mr. Lindblad, widely regarded as the father of ecotourism, had designed a vessel for a business category that he virtually invented - passenger cruises to the coldest, most hostile places on the planet. And the Explorer did not disappoint: Within a year of its 1969 launch from a Finnish shipyard, the Explorer had made history by becoming the first passenger ship to visit the continent of Antarctica - the beginning of a series of feats that would earn it iconic status among the ranks of adventure tourists.

Many called it "the little ship with the big heart."

The final chapter of the Explorer's colourful, action-packed history was written yesterday, when the little red ship hit a submerged object, rolled over and began sinking into the icy waters of the Antarctic.

One hundred and fifty four passengers and crew were aboard. Although the scene conjured up the Titanic, the crucial difference was that there were more than enough lifeboats, and everyone was saved.

"That's the positive that came out of this," said Bruce Poon Tip, CEO of Gap Adventures, the Toronto-based travel firm that owns the ship. "We have to say thanks, because everything worked, and no one got hurt."

The drama began early yesterday, as the Explorer entered the 12th day of what was supposed to be a 20-day trip. Shortly after midnight (Eastern Time), as the Explorer threaded its way through iceberg-packed waters about 850 kilometres southeast of Ushuaia, the southernmost Argentine city, a passenger noticed water in her cabin and notified the crew. Crew members wondered if the water might have come from a leaking pipe inside the ship, but an inspection soon revealed that it was sea water - this meant that the Explorer's specially reinforced double hull had been breached.

The crew began working to contain the leak by switching on the ship's bilge pumps and closing watertight doors that divide the ship into a series of separate compartments. For about an hour, it appeared that the situation might stabilize as the water level fell slightly. But then it rose again, and the ship's electrical power system went out, stopping the pumps and throwing the areas below decks into darkness until emergency lighting kicked in.

About two hours after the leak was discovered, the captain gave the order to abandon ship. A series of short, loud reports over the public address system preceded an announcement: "Everyone please go to the rescue stations. We have a fairly serious problem."

By now, the Explorer was listing sharply to starboard, slowly losing its battle to stay afloat. Some passengers wondered if it would be possible to lower the lifeboats, given the angle. But the boats were successfully deployed, and ladders were hung over the side. Soon, the passengers were in the lifeboats, looking back at the Explorer. A helicopter arrived, circled above the scene for a few minutes, then flew away. The passengers bobbed in the lifeboats, which, to the casual observer, looked little different than those used on the Titanic - white, open vessels that offered little or no protection from the Antarctic wind.

For the next few hours, the passengers floated, wondering when help would come. The temperature was below zero, and the wind was blowing at nearly 40 kilometres an hour, creating a deadly wind chill. The lifeboats had thermal blankets, but for some passengers, these weren't enough - they were in pyjamas or light clothing because they hadn't realized the seriousness of the situation when they were ordered to report to the emergency stations. The cold seemed to knife right through them. A Gap Adventures employee later sent an e-mail to the company comparing the experience of being in the lifeboats to floating in "a frozen plastic bag."

Even so, an aura of calm prevailed. The passengers chatted quietly, and wondered when rescuers would arrive. Finally, after about five hours, someone spotted the lights of the M/S Nordnorge, a Norwegian cruise ship built in 1997 and captained by Arnvid Hansen. The Explorer's passengers and crew were soon aboard.

The passengers played down their fear: "It's been a fairly hard day," said John Cartwright, a passenger from Ottawa who was interviewed by CBC News from aboard the Nordnorge. "First of all, the action occurred just after midnight, so there was very little sleep, certainly not more than a couple of hours. And secondly, of course, when we had to abandon ship there were fairly rough seas and strong winds."

There is no clear picture yet of what sank the Explorer. The ship's captain called company owner Mr. Poon Tip by satellite phone shortly after the Explorer began taking on water. According to Mr. Poon Tip, the captain said there was no noticeable impact, and that the first sign of trouble was the water in the cabin.

The Explorer had radar to detect icebergs above water level, and side-scan sonar to spot ice or other objects below the surface. The captain was specially trained in polar operations. Although there was widespread speculation yesterday that the ship had hit an iceberg, Mr. Poon Tip said there was no basis for that conclusion.

"We don't know what the ship hit," he said. "There's just been a lot of speculation." Questions were also raised yesterday about the ship's equipment.

The Guardian reported that inspections this year found 11 deficiencies, including missing search-and-rescue plans and lifeboat-maintenance problems, and that the ship was held in port until the safety concerns were addressed.

A British maritime expert also questioned the use of open lifeboats on a ship that cruised in polar waters, often far away from search-and-rescue stations.

"The vessel was not breaking any rules by having such lifeboats rather than the more-closed newer ones," said Mark Dickinson, assistant general secretary of the maritime union Nautilus UK. "But you have to question whether a vessel visiting icy waters with elderly passengers aboard was as equipped as it might have been."

The Explorer has carried thousands of passengers since it was launched in 1969. Mr. Poon Tip bought it in the spring of 2003 after discovering the fabled ship languishing in an Italian shipyard. His company spent several million dollars restoring the Explorer and upgrading it to the latest marine-safety standards before relaunching it in November of 2003. Voyages on the Explorer were the antithesis of a Caribbean luxury cruise. There was no dance floor, no beauty salon and no buffet. Instead, the ship was designed as a floating classroom and laboratory. There were rooms filled with research material, and the passengers were accompanied by a pantheon of experts who gave the ship the feel of an oceangoing salon - there were oceanographers, ornithologists, veterinarians, aerodynamicists, sculptors and writers who travelled free in exchange for serving as guest lecturers. Among the recent guests were writers Margaret Atwood and Ken McGoogan.

Mr. McGoogan said he was stunned to see that the ship he had sailed on just two months ago was sinking: "It was a great ship," he said. "I loved it."

His sentiments were echoed by Bill Lishman, an Ontario artist and naturalist who did four voyages as a guest speaker. Mr. Lishman, who rose to fame after teaching Canada Geese to fly in formation with his ultralight aircraft (his life story was captured in the Hollywood move Fly Away Home), said his trips aboard the Explorer were some of the most amazing adventures of his life. Mr. Lishman's cabin was in the bow of the ship, near water level. He recalls lying in his bunk as the Explorer punched its way through the thick pack ice: "You could hear it all around you, going past the hull," he said. "You got used to it after a while."

Mr. Lishman said he never worried about his safety on the ship: "It was built for what we were doing. And the crew was great. We were in good hands."