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Icy maneuvers for Nome-bound fuel tanker

US Coast Guard photo

The Bering Sea is welcoming a foreign fuel tanker bound for Nome with a cold, harsh hello. Throughout the day, Wednesday, the Renda faced big seas off Alaska featuring snow, frozen spray and gale-force winds. Yet it wasn't the extreme environment that proved most menacing. Late Wednesday, a malfunctioning engine part forced the tanker back into Dutch Harbor for what's expected to be a quick repair.

It's nearly unheard of for a cargo ship to brave Alaska's ice-choked winter waters, an impossible feat for any lesser vessel. Yet with a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker at its side, the Renda is attempting to do just that, ferrying some 1.3 million gallons of fuel to a community on Alaska's western coastline.

The general route is simple: sail straight out of Dutch Harbor to the ice edge, from there turn slightly to the east and continue through the ice northward to Nome. But there is virtually no chance of the Renda and its government escort, the Coast Guard cutter Healy, staying on a straight path.

"Bering Sea ice is not solid. It moves, and it moves a lot," said Kathleen Cole, Sea Ice Program leader for the National Weather Service in Anchorage. Cole is consulting daily with the voyage. Ice thickness, size of the floes and how the ice moves is her specialty.

Hers is a unique job. It's the only one like it in the nation, in fact, and she's expected to come in handy for the tandem voyage to Nome. Relying on information from Cole and other "ice experts," the ships will "plot the path of least resistance," said Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow, speaking on behalf of the U.S. Coast Guard. Weather patterns and ice conditions will factor into day-to-day decision making during the voyage, he said. For example, crews may divert to avoid conditions that would cause heavy ice build up.

Or, as Cole points out, they may choose to drive around instead of through one of the larger ice floes, which can be 2-3 feet thick and stretch as wide as Anchorage's city limits. "It is substantial ice out there," she said. "They can actually go through anything that's out there. It just slows them down."

Rather than one large floating mass, Bering Sea ice is a jumble of chunks -- some big, some small, in varied thickness and strength.

The ice pack has also expanded since the Renda was first commissioned to ferry fuel to Nome. Weeks ago the ice edge extended about 300 miles from Nome. By Wednesday, amid an ongoing stretch of unseasonably cold temperatures, the edge had widened to more than 390 miles at the entry point selected by the Renda, Cole said.

On Wednesday, before it did a U-turn to deal with the malfunctioning engine part, the Renda was plowing through 10-15 foot seas in bad weather. The upside to getting away from open water and into sea ice is that conditions improve because the waves diminish greatly.

"These boats of this size can handle this weather," Cole said. "Once they get to the ice they will be through the worst weather they are going to face."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com