Alaska pilot for the Renda links fuel trip to serum run

Peter Garay

As Alaska turns from 2011 to the New Year, a team effort reminiscent of the famous serum run to Nome is under way to bring desperately needed fuel supplies to Nome. The Russian-flagged, ice-strengthened tanker Renda, along with her crew, are attempting to make history with the first ever fuel delivery to Western Alaska in the heart of winter. This is the stuff "sea stories" are made of -- and as in the case of Alaska's Nome serum run -- history is made.

To accomplish this historical feat Renda will have to plow her way through some 250 miles (and growing) of hardening pack ice in temperatures that could plunge well into the minus double digits. Her partner in this effort will be the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy which will be the muscle that will help the Renda get to Nome, and back, safely.

Behind this effort are myriad logistical issues. For nearly a month now a team of committed men and women from both the private and public sectors have been working together to ensure these two vessels successfully complete their mission.

The level of effort to accomplish this New Year's delivery to Nome is significant. The Coast Guard holds daily planning sessions with all "partners" involved in this mission. Each morning weather and ice routing experts from across the globe are providing daily updates. Vessel owners, ship's agents, the officers and crew members of both the Healy and the Renda, and the Alaska Marine Pilots continue to refine an optimum sea plan that will ensure the tanker Renda arrives and departs our state no worse for wear.

Sitnasuak Native Corporation initiated the effort by locating and chartering the Renda. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is tracking the charter's progress and ensuring their discharge plans minimize the risk of fuel spillage. The Maritime Administration (MARAD) worked to secure a Jones Act waiver. The City of Nome, the University of Alaska and many others are lending their help to stage the necessary equipment in Nome harbor prior to the Renda's arrival. Shipping agents including Vitus Marine and ALAMAR are expediting banking, customs and immigration documents. While much of these efforts are not visible to most Alaskans this is truly a story of many "Baltos" pulling as one as those dog teams did in 1925.

We should closely follow this "sea story" as there is considerably more riding on the success of this mission than is immediately apparent. The story these ships will eventually tell will likely follow one of two scenarios.

The fuel is safely delivered to Nome, in which case it's proven that with good planning, the right tools and all due respect for our winter maritime environment, we can safely conduct commercial shipping operations in Northwestern Alaska's ice-covered seas. Given such a scenario the stage is further set to usher in Alaska's first oil and gas exploration season off its northern coastline.

Or, it is determined the fuel delivery could not be made safely, in which case the Renda would be turned around prior to risk of life, limb or environmental damage to Alaska's coastline. In either case, the mission will have been successful.

"Sea stories" can be short, or long. If they're short, they are referred to as "coastwise," denoting a shorter voyage, as opposed to a long "foreign" trip. At the conclusion of this mission I'm certain there will be some good "coasters" for all to share, but more importantly I'm hopeful they tell the tale of a long and prosperous "foreign" voyage into America's last energy frontier, our state's northern waters, from which all Alaskans will benefit.

Just as we proved in the Nome serum run, our ability to work in Western Alaska's harsh environment with the hard-won expertise of these team members will prove Alaskans are the key to success in future developments in the Arctic.

We can make history again.

Capt. Pete Garay has spent the last 20 years of his career working in the remote waters of Western Alaska as a state-licensed marine pilot. His most recent piloting assignment is the Renda.