After being slowed and at times stalled by ice in the Bering Sea, a Coast Guard icebreaker and a Russian tanker were making "great progress" toward Nome on Tuesday, according to an official for the corporation arranging the fuel delivery to the iced-in city.
The delivery, which if successful would mark the first time petroleum products have been delivered by sea to a Western Alaska community in winter, remains challenging, said Jason Evans, chairman of Sitnasuak Native Corp.
"I think there continues to be a lot of pressure on the ice, so when they break the ice it wants to immediately squeeze together, or the broken ice wants to shoot back into the hole they just made," Evans said.
Coast Guard spokesman David Mosley said the tanker Renda and the icebreaker Healy were less than 100 miles from Nome at around noon Tuesday, having made it through 53 miles of ice-covered waters Monday.
The icebreaker is creating a path for the tanker through ice that is between 2 and 3 feet thick, Mosley said. The progress the vessels are making -- compared with earlier reports that they were slowed and sometimes stopped with ice pinching the sides of the tanker -- has to do with day-to-day changes in the ice, he said.
Shifting ice, described as dynamic ice, has slowed the progress of the vessels. The ice tends to close in, cutting off the path between the two ships. When that happens, the icebreaker doubles back and makes a relief cut to take pressure off the tanker and open a pathway.
"I think they continue to do well with the circumstances," Evans said.
He said the tanker and the icebreaker were expected to go through a large section of thinner ice and then encounter thicker ice again near Nome.
Sitnasuak Native Corp. arranged for the tanker delivery after a storm prevented a barge delivery in the fall before Nome became iced-in for the winter. The tanker is loaded with more than 1 million gallons of diesel and 300,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline. Without the delivery, Nome could run short of fuel before a barge delivery becomes possible in late spring.
Crews are working in Nome to be ready for the tanker's arrival, perhaps Thursday.
The Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Conservation are in Nome setting up a safety perimeter and preparing for offloading of the fuel, Evans said. The ship is equipped with a hose of more than a mile for transferring fuel into Nome, where ice near the port is about 2 feet thick.
"I think that is good because if they do have to kind of stop in the ice, the thick ice will hold these ships in place for a safer transfer," Evans said.
By MARY PEMBERTON