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Ice cowboys reckon with ships stuck in stubborn Alaska ice

Jill Burke
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 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
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 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
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 Renda as seen from the cutter Healy on January 6.
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
Renda captain and crew on Jan. 5, one day before the tanker was to begin confronting Bering Sea ice.
Image courtesy: Pete Garay
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 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
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 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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
An update on the Healy and Renda's progress as of 8 a.m., Jan. 7, 2012.
Illustration courtesy Vitus Marine
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 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
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 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 fuel mission to Nome through frozen pack ice off of Alaska's western coast had for a second consecutive day stalled until late Wednesday night. That afternoon Renda and her ice-breaking escort, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy, remained about 100 miles south of the town they're aiming to save from a looming fuel shortage. But by midnight they'd managed to put another 30 miles behind them, pulling to within 70 miles of their destination. 

Vitus Marine, the company that chartered the Renda to make the fuel delivery, said crews expected little progress during the day, as they had planned to focus more on logistics than movement, including helicoptering in a seaman who knows the ice well.

Jeffrey Garrett, a retired admiral with the U.S. Coast Guard, has commanded both the Healy and the Coast Guard's larger ice breaker, Polar Sea.  He has extensive experience in Alaska, Antarctica and the Great Lakes. "We are delighted to be able to draw upon this new-found resource," said Stacey Smith, a project manager with Vitus Marine.

When Garrett arrives aboard the Renda, he'll find a crew that has also invoked heavenly help. A framed picture of an embroidered icon is stationed among the officers on the bridge, a good-will missive sent by the mother of the Russian ship's captain. She made the needlepoint symbol -- a depiction of a Russian patron saint for all mariners -- for her son to carry at sea.

The mission may require both figures to succeed.

"The ship has a mind of it's own," Capt. Peter Garay, the Alaska vessel pilot guiding the Renda in and out of Alaska's waters, said Wednesday. "For the past two days she's behaved like a stubborn little Burro who refuses to be budged. No amount of coaxing on the Healy's part could get her to continue trodding on along the trail to Nome."

The Healy has resorted to ice-breaking techniques called the "herring bone" and "plunger" in an effort to get the Russian-flagged fuel tanker on its way. "The Herring bone cracks the ice alongside the ice-bound vessel, relieving the pressure, while the plunger draws away that broken ice so the 'stucken' vessel can pull free," Garay explained. 

Optimism remained high Wednesday that the Renda would complete her journey. Everyone involved seems committed to seeing it through, no matter how long that takes. The Coast Guard has previously said as long as the ships and their crews are safe, the sojourn will continue. 

Still, thick in the ice, 100 miles is a long way to go. Determination among the crew is described as abundant, and the distance gained thus far through hostile conditions has bolstered their confidance. Yet in the beginning, skepticism quietly hung over the mission like a bad shadow.

"Most of us involved gave this operation little chance of success, though most of us were reluctant to say this publicly," Carter Whalen, president of the Alaska Marine Pilots and Garay's colleague, said on Wednesday.  "The challenges of moving two ships from two very different walks of life through 300 miles of pack ice in January? Considerable. To draw a sincere compliment of a ship’s captain from a ship’s pilot is often like drawing water from a dry well. Yet daily, Capt. Garay uses the limited communication time he has to convey how capable, confident and knowledgeable Capt. Sergey is aboard Renda. An unsung hero already." 

Many people are working hard around the clock -- plotting courses, studying terrain, reading the weather, steering ships -- to keep the mission going. Whalen, monitoring the voyage from his home base in Dutch Harbor, said it seems to be working.

"Through the haze of cigarette smoke, through miles of ice, in an atmosphere of rigid pressure both on the frozen sea and in the mission itself, these men aboard Renda quietly go about the business of pushing their ship through the ice pack,” he said.  “With a quiet confidence they press ahead. Healy -- their guide when progress is steady. Healy -- nearby as a friend when the going gets tougher."

Samiy Maliy Vperiod! (Slow ahead.) Polniy Vperiod! (Full ahead.) Ostandvit Mashinu! (Stop engines.) These are the commands Garay hears ring from Renda's bridge amid minus-40 degree wind chills below clear and sunny skies.

"Hopefully sometime today, between all of these commands, this little Burro will grab the stallion back by her tail and once again we grab our sombreros, saddle back up and proceed to Nome," Garay said. 

Whalen and others have called the expedition very "Shackleton-esque," a grand, gripping adventure that recalls the Antarctic explorer who survived being trapped by ice for months on end.

"This voyage is a modern day trip back in time," Whalen said Wednesday, reflecting on how far the ships have come and what lies ahead. "By my account, it's not simply the collective expertise of those men and women involved that has made the difference. It's the collective character, the will to succeed by coloring outside the lines, to break new ice that makes the difference. In a world full of bad news. In a world lacking in adventure. This is what inspires me."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com