A STRICKEN cruise ship was tonight still afloat in the Antarctic Ocean.

Twenty four Britons and four people from Ireland were among 100 passengers forced to take to lifeboats today after their cruise liner hit ice and began taking on water.

Passengers abandoned the 2,400-tonne Liberian-flagged MV Explorer after a small hole was punched in the hull in the early hours of today.

After enduring temperatures of minus 5C, the passengers and the 54-strong crew were eventually transferred uninjured to Norwegian cruise ship the MV NordNorge, which had gone to the rescue.

Fourteen of the Britons were clients of adventure holiday company Explore which has its headquarters at Farnborough, Hampshire.

They were taking part in Explore's Spirit of Shackleton tour of 19 nights, starting from the port of Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina and including the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.

Pictures of the incident showed the Explorer listing violently to one side, so the deck was almost in the water.

Passengers abandoned the vessel near a huge iceberg, in a vast expanse of freezing polar water. They could be seen in red life-jackets, boarding shallow, rigid-hulled lifeboats.

They were seen making the crossing between the Explorer and the rescue vessels, which appear many hundred metres apart.

Explore's managing director Ashley Toft said: "While such incidents are very rare, they are nevertheless shocking when they occur."

Arnvid Hansen, the captain of the NordNorge, operated by Norwegian cruise company Hurtigruten, said the passengers were cold but not suffering from hypothermia.

He added: "It was no problem to get them on board. They were picked up from the lifeboats and this operation took around one hour.

"The passengers are in our premier lounge having warm food and drying their clothes on board. Some are cold but none has hypothermia. We are giving them as many clothes as we can."

Tonight the vessel was heading for King George Island where the passengers were expected to be taken off.

As the drama unfolded, it emerged that UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) inspectors had found five faults with the Explorer when it docked at Greenock in Scotland in May this year.

These included missing search and rescue plans and lifeboat maintenance problems. Watertight doors were described as "not as required", and the fire safety measures also attracted criticism.

MCA spokesman Mark Clarke said: "These were not huge problems and were all rectified before the vessel sailed. It would not have been allowed to depart if everything had not been sorted out."

It is understood that Chilean port state control inspectors also found six deficiencies during an inspection in Puerto Natales in March. These included two related to safety of navigation matters.

Classification society Det Norske Veritas issued a passenger safety certificate for the vessel on October 21, the MCA said.

A UK maritime expert said today: "Passengers had to wait in cold conditions in old-style open lifeboats.

"The vessel was not breaking any rules by having such lifeboats rather than the more-closed newer ones. 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's owner G.A.P. Adventures, based in Toronto, said the M/S Explorer "hit ice" in the Bransfield Strait off King George Island, Antarctica, at 5.24am UK time.

It added that all passengers and crew were safe and uninjured.

The company went on: "Standard procedures were followed by the crew with passengers calmly evacuated to the ship's life rafts and then transferred to the NordNorge, which was in the area."