The mission was daunting by every measure: First, journey 5,000 miles, struggling at times through thick ocean ice, then pump 1.3 million gallons of fuel from a frozen-in-place ship to an iced-in Alaska city half a mile away, all while braving subzero temperatures.
On Thursday, the first-of-its-kind endeavor came to a successful close, to the relief of the residents of Nome, who are experiencing one of their coldest winters on record and had been counting on the diesel fuel and gasoline delivery to get them through the next few months.
The Russian tanker's ocean journey would have been challenging enough, but the offshore offloading of fuel with ships frozen in place off the coast had never been tried in Alaska before, said Stacey Smith, manager for Vitus Marine LLC, the company that came up with the idea.
"There were new challenges that arose every day if not every minute," she said Thursday, soon after the tanker's entire load of fuel had been pumped and was in storage tanks in Nome.
"There were times we actually lost ground," said Smith, referring to occasions when the 370-foot tanker and a Coast Guard icebreaker leading the way were stalled and drifting the wrong direction in Bering Sea ice. "When we ran up against those challenges we just had to stop for a moment and think what is preventing us and strategize. I think we knew we had confidence we could make it here."
It marked the first time petroleum products have been delivered to a Western Alaska community by sea in winter.
The pumping operation lasted 60 hours and 40 minutes, and officially ended at 5:48 a.m. Thursday. It entailed two parallel hoses, 700 yards long each, stretched between the tanker and a pipeline that delivered the fuel to the storage tanks near the harbor of the iced-in city. The fuel is expected to be enough until a barge delivery can be made in June.
Jason Evans, board chairman of Sitnasuak Native Corp., the corporation that arranged for the tanker delivery, called the transfer of the fuel "a huge milestone" but said the mission was not over. The tanker and icebreaker still need to get out of the frozen ice and back home, he said.
"I don't really feel like it is over yet until everybody is safely through the ice," Evans said.
The plan is for the icebreaker to help get the tanker back through the ice and to open water where the tanker will head for Russia. The icebreaker will go to Dutch Harbor to drop off supplies and then to its home port in Seattle.
Smith said Thursday ice reports indicate there is a southbound route of 395 miles from Nome to the ice edge.
The city of 3,500 didn't get its last pre-winter barge fuel delivery because of a massive November storm. Without the Russian tanker's delivery, Nome -- an old Gold Rush town that is experiencing one of the coldest winters on record with temperatures dipping to more than 30 below -- would have run out of fuel by March or April, long before the next barge delivery is possible.
The Russian tanker Renda began its journey from Russia in mid-December, picking up diesel fuel in South Korea before heading to Dutch Harbor, where it took on unleaded gasoline. The icebreaker cleared a path for the tanker through hundreds of miles of thick ice and strong ocean currents in the Bering Sea.
Evans said he had the opportunity in Nome to go aboard the Russian tanker where he was served a lunch of borscht soup, spaghetti, fried chicken and freshly-made bread while thanking the captain and crew for getting the fuel to Nome.
"I told him he was one of the most famous captains of the world and he told me not in Russia," Evans said. "He told me, 'We do this all the time.'"