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Alaska ice mission: Stop and go toward Nome

Jill Burke
A Kodiak-based Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules airplane crew surveys the Bering Sea ice and evaluates the progress of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy as the ship cuts a path through the ice for tanker vessel Renda on Jan. 7, 2012.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley
The view from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy's bridge during a stop in Dutch Harbor on Tuesday, January 3, 2012. The Healy will be assisting the fuel ship Renda as it makes its way to Nome.
Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
A Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew lands on frozen sea ice in front of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy outside the Port of Nome on Jan. 18.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice as the sun begins to set in the Nome harbor on Jan. 13.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy crew breaks ice surrounding the Russian-flagged tanker Renda about 250 miles south of Nome, Alaska, Jan. 6, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Benjamin Nocerini
The double-hulled Russian ice-class vessel Renda. Sitnasuak The Native Corporation of Nome has signed a contract to have the Renda deliver 1.5 million gallons of gasoline, diesel and heating fuel to the city of Nome.
Photo courtesy RIMSCO
The city of Nome, left, and the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, right, as seen from the bridge of the Renda on Wednesday, January 18.
Photo by Stacey Smith/Vitus Marine
On Friday afternoon, the Healy maneuvers up and down Nome's coastline, in anticipation of the Renda's pending fuel delivery.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
An update on the Healy and Renda's progress as of 8 a.m., Jan. 7, 2012.
Illustration courtesy Vitus Marine
Two fuel transfer hoses run side-by-side from the tanker vessel Renda to the Nome harbor on Jan. 16.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy breaks ice just offshore of Nome on Friday.
Photo by Pat Hahn and Sue Greenly
The Healy escorts the Russian-flagged tanker vessel Renda 250 miles south of Nome on Jan. 6, 2012. The vessels are transiting through ice up to five feet thick in this area.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis
Coast Guard safety inspectors and their industry counterparts work with tanker vessel Renda crew members to prepare hoses for pressure tests on Jan. 16.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler
The Healy and the Renda off the coast of Nome at daybreak on Friday, January 13.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The Healy breaks ice for the tanker vessel Renda 250 miles south of Nome, Alaska, Jan. 6, 2012. The Renda is carrying over 1.3 million gallons of fuel supplies for delivery to the residents of Nome.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis
The Renda off the coast of Nome on Monday, January 16.
Photo by Sue Greenly
The lights of the Renda and Healy were visible from Nome's causeway just after midnight on Friday, January 13th. The ships are expected to make their way closer to the city at daybreak on Friday.
Photo by Ben Matheson, KNOM Radio Mission
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice around the Russian-flagged tanker vessel Renda 250 miles south of Nome, Alaska, Jan. 6, 2012. The Healy is the Coast Guard's only current operating polar icebreaker.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis
The Renda off the coast of Nome on Monday, January 16.
Photo by Sue Greenly
Coast Guard Forces Valdez personnel train on snow machines in the Nome harbor on Jan. 12. The Forces Valdez personnel are preparing to enforce the safety zone during the fuel transfer from the Russian tanker Renda.
Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen
The Russian-flagged tanker vessel Renda 250 miles south of Nome, Alaska, as the cutter Healy makes several passes around it to break the ice on Jan. 6, 2012.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis
Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo speaks about the Renda delivering fuel to Nome while Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski listens.
Ben Anderson photo
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy approaches the Russian-flagged tanker Renda while breaking ice around the vessel 97 miles south of Nome, Alaska on Jan. 10.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis
The Renda as seen from the cutter Healy on January 6.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
Approximately 3,500 Nome residents await the arrival of the 370-foot Russian tanker Renda as the Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks shore fast ice on Jan. 14.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen
Bill Walker, with the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, prepares an Aeryon Scout unmanned aerial vehicle at the Nome causeway. Walker is using the UAV to gather aerial photos and video of daily ice conditions in preparation for the planned fuel transfer during the city's fuel crisis. Jan. 10, 2012
Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen
The Healy breaks ice for the Russian-flagged tanker Renda approximately 19 miles northwest of Nunivak Island on Jan. 6, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The Coast Guard's Healy and Renda prepare to leave Nome Jan. 20, 2012.
USCG Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst photo
Skier crosses the frozen Bering Sea ice to the Russian tanker Renda on Sunday.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission Da
Unmanned Aircraft Program Manager Greg Walker shows the transmitter for the UAV researchers are using to monitor the thickness of sea ice around Nome as the tanker vessel Renda approaches the city with 1.3 million gallons of fuel.
Photo by Matthew Smith, KNOM Radio Mission
A Healy crewmember takes a moment to watch the Russian-flagged tanker Renda steam through the ice in the North Bering Sea while the cutter crew escorts the tanker to Nome on Jan. 6, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The bow of the Renda at sunset on Wednesday.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The US Coast Guard cutter Healy offshore from Nome.
Ben Anderson photo
UAV in flight over the Nome harbor.
Photo by Matthew Smith, KNOM Radio Mission
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy crew breaks a path in the ice of the Bering Sea for the tanker Renda as the vessels steam toward Nome, Alaska, on Jan. 6, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
A member of the Renda's crew.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
Residents of Nome sit and look out at the Healy and Renda offshore on Jan. 15, 2012.
Ben Anderson photo
UAF researchers are using a UAV to monitor ice thickness around the port of Nome as the tanker vessel Renda approaches the city.
Photo by Matthew Smith, KNOM Radio Mission
Renda captain and crew on Jan. 5, one day before the tanker was to begin confronting Bering Sea ice.
Image courtesy: Pete Garay
The Renda offloads fuel to the city of Nome on Wednesday.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
Nome residents look out at the Renda and Healy on Jan. 15, 2012.
Ben Anderson photo
A cross-section of ice from Nome Harbor as of Jan. 11, 2012.
Photo courtesy Vitus Marine
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks through the Bering Sea ice 165 miles south of Nome, Alaska, on a return path to break up ice around the tanker Renda on Jan. 8.
Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy escorts the tanker Renda from Dutch Harbor to Nome on Jan. 5, 2011.
U.S.C.G. photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally
A fuel line offloads the Renda's cargo on Wednesday. The Healy is in the distance at left.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy guides the Russian tanker Renda closer to the city of Nome and the fuel transfer mooring point on Saturday.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen
The Russian-flagged tanker Renda, carrying more than 1.3 million gallons of fuel to be delivered to Nome, Alaska, makes way through the Bering Sea ice 165 miles from the city on Jan. 8, 2012.
Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally
A Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak HC-130 Hercules aircrew conducts an overflight of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy as it escorts the tanker Renda on Jan. 5, 2012. The Healy crew is scheduled to break a path in the ice near Nome so the Renda crew can deliver fuel supplies to the city.
U.S.C.G. photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally
Mark Smith, CEO of Vitus Marine, stands in front of the Renda on January 18.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The Healy breaks ice near the Nome on Jan. 14. The Healy is assisting the tanker Renda as it moves into final position for offloading nearly 1.3 million gallons of fuel for the city
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow
The Russian-flagged tanker Renda, carrying more than 1.3 million gallons of fuel, sits in the ice while the Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks the ice around the tanker approximately 19 miles northwest of Nunivak Island on Jan. 6.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
Russian fuel tanker Renda in Dutch Harbor, Alaska
US Coast Guard photo
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy sits to the right of the Russian tanker Renda in this view from the stern of the ship.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The Renda, left, and the Healy seen from Nome's causeway on Saturday, Jan. 14.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The tanker vessel Renda follows a path made in the ice by the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy Jan. 6, 2012.
Photo by Seaman Benjamin Nocerini
Pete Garay is piloting the Russian ice-breaking fuel tanker Renda in Alaska waters
Photo courtesy: Alaska Marine Pilots
Coast Guard Cutter Healy and tanker vessel Renda remain offshore as the offload of 1.3 million gallons of fuel nears completion on Jan. 18.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler
The Healy breaks ice near the Port of Nome on Saturday, January 14.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission

A fit hiker on land would outpace the progress being made by a U.S. Coast Guard ice-breaking cutter and the Arctic Russian fuel tanker it’s escorting toward a western Alaska Village. Assuming, of course, that the hiker didn’t have to repeatedly double back to free a stuck friend, or chop her way through massive ice blocks just to keep going.

This is the very predicament these ships and the people relying on them signed up for. Alaska’s harsh weather and icy winter sea are fickle foes for the mariners who must find a way to overcome the ever-shifting path through the Bering Sea.

Early Saturday morning the Coast Guard’s polar ice-breaking cutter Healy and the Russian tanker Renda were about 50 miles due west of the village of Hooper Bay. Twelve hours later they were in relatively the same location, but had crept 10 miles to the north -- a good thing.

“Progress has been slow but steady,” Stacey Smith, a project manager with Vitus Marine, the company that chartered the Renda, said early Saturday night. Despite the seemingly sluggish plod toward Nome, the ships could still make it to the city late Sunday or early Monday, the same arrival time projected at the start of the journey.

One of the big challenges has been getting the ships “in step” with each other, said Captain Carter Whalen of the Alaska Marine Pilots. Whalen’s colleague, Captain Peter Garay, is the only American on the Renda, the state-mandated pilot who will steer the ship in and out of Alaska’s ports.

If Renda and her load of 1.3 million gallons of fuel follows too closely, she risks overrunning the Healy, which is in the lead as the primary ice-breaker. If she’s too far back or the Healy is going too fast, she can get left behind, as has occurred throughout the journey. The crews are finding that about the time they get their travel rhythms figured out, Murphy’s Law seems to kick in -- the sea’s ice conditions change, affecting the dynamics all over again, Whalen said.

The stop-and-go travel tempo may improve once the ships begin to pass St. Lawrence Island, which Saturday evening was about 95 miles northwest of the Healy, with the fuel caravan still about 190 miles from Nome.

A “wind shadow” created by a land feature on the coastline above Nome has created a wide section of thinner ice, said Kathleen Cole, an ice scientist with the National Weather Service who is consulting on the mission.

Winds blowing from North to South across the finger created by the land surrounding Port Clarence push ice away from shore. When new ice forms, it, too, is blown south. The cycle repeats, creating a large area of thinner ice the ships will find themselves in until they get about 30 miles from Nome, when the ice will thicken again, Cole said.

The ships’ crews are working long hours on the trip, and Smith imagines on board it must be “anything but dull.”

“Caffeine is likely a dietary staple,” she said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com