Canadian Coast Guard officials are warning that there's a long road ahead in the ongoing efforts to free up dozens of ships and hundreds of mariners trapped in the ice off Newfoundland.

During a Friday morning teleconference with reporters, coast guard Capt. Brian Penney said the situation is under control, but is "far from over."

More than 100 longliners are beset by ice, and roughly 500 crew members have hunkered down and are waiting to be freed from the icy clutch.

Twenty-four of the ships have been partially, or entirely evacuated, officials said.

Penney said the coast guard is working on a priority-based system, focusing efforts on those ships that are at the greatest risk.

Even the three coast guard ice breakers have had trouble -- with two taking turns being stuck themselves -- though escort efforts are now once again underway.

In many cases, coast guard helicopters have delivered food, water, and in some cases fuel to the trapped vessels. Some have been lodged in the ice for up to nine days.

Penney warned that some ships have sustained serious damage from the crushing ice -- often one-metre deep -- that surrounds the vessels on all sides, in some cases thrusting them out of the water or causing them to tilt at strange angles.

"The situation is being closely monitored and there are several vessels out there that we know of that have sustained damage and they are part of the search and rescue operations that are pending," Penney said.

In one case, the coast guard helped attach sheets of plywood to the sides of a ship to help protect it from the destructive ice. In other cases fibreglass hulls, propellers and rudders have sustained damage -- and more is likely to be discovered.

"And at this time there's no doubt once the pressure eases and we begin moving these vessels there will be additional damage," Penney said.

He said there were reports that the wind could begin to ease Friday night and Saturday, and even shift to a more favourable southwest direction by Sunday, which could trigger the break up the massive ice pack.

"Hopefully conditions will soon as the winds change from a northeast direction we will begin to see some improvements," he predicted, but noted that for the moment the conditions remain severe, and change will come slowly.

Most of the trapped ships are longliner fishing vessels waylaid off the coast of northeast Newfoundland and southern Labrador, while on their way home from last week's seal hunt.

Rodney Gray, captain of the Cape John Navigator, told CTV's Canada AM on Friday that his ship has been stranded about 19 kilometres off the coast of Lumsden, N.L., since Sunday.

He said the ship hasn't been damaged by the ice, and plenty of supplies have been delivered by the coast guard, and the crew is just waiting for a change in the weather.

Gray said the Navigator came into the area hoping to be helped into harbour by a coast guard icebreaker that was escorting ships into port.

"But she got tasked to do some more cases that were more serious than ours at the time. So she didn't get to us that night. So that night there then, we were like sort of in the ice -- but during the night it closed up very quickly," he said from the ship.

He said most people agreed the conditions were the worst they have been in years.

"This is the worst conditions I've seen. Now, I haven't been sailing for that long, probably five to six years now. But it's the worst conditions that I've seen," Gray said.

"And hearing some of the fishermen that have been sailing for a long time, they haven't seen any conditions much worse than this before."

Gray said his crew was safe, and spirits were still high.

"We're playing a few cards and that there and talking and having a laugh and watching the hockey games in the nighttime. So, we're not doing too much, because like I say, we're only on a 55-foot boat and there's not a big lot of room, but the spirits are still high anyway and hoping for the best."

Eldred Burden, the skipper of an 18-metre vessel trapped in the ice, told The Canadian Press his crew is in the midst of a "dangerous situation."

"There's not one thing you can do ... We're getting dragged out pretty good. You're up all night and the boat is heaving and twisting," he said during a telephone interview.

Gray said he was hoping for a change in the weather as early as Friday, to trigger some movement in the ice sheet.

Earlier this week, strong northeast winds generated by a massive low-pressure system started pushing the ice toward the coast of northeastern Newfoundland and southern Labrador.

Almost every year when sealers head to the floes to hunt for seals born on the shifting ice pans, some vessels become trapped in the ice.

However, weather conditions during the past week have created a huge and highly compacted ice pack that is causing more trouble than usual for sealers.

With files from The Canadian Press