At daybreak Friday, the Russian-flagged fuel tanker Renda and the ice-breaking U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy had a shoreline view of their target: the fuel-strapped city of Nome, Alaska. Soon, this same town will be the final destination for other racers -- some arriving by snowmachine, others by dog sled, still others on fat-tire bikes. But for now, a gang of ice-breaking sailors are the ones pushing their way to the historic Gold Rush town.
The Renda and the Healy are bringing the city 1.4 million gallons of fuel, replenishing a critically low supply in the midst of a deep, sub-zero cold spell. With a little more than seven miles to go -- a distance the ships covered in an hour several times during a journey hundreds of miles long through Bering Sea pack ice -- this last stretch could be the toughest.
"These last few miles could be our most challenging," Capt. Peter Garay, the Alaska Marine Pilot who will oversee the Renda's final approach to Nome, told Alaska Dispatch Friday morning.
Ice experts have warned the ice near Nome could prove menacing for the ships, thicker than what they'd conquered thus far. Two ice ridges, one 25 feet deep, could block their way.
Because Renda has routinely needed the Healy's assistance to break free from the ice's tight grip, the ships will stay far enough offshore to allow the Healy to be close by to do so again after the fuel is offloaded and ships are ready for their return trip south.
"While they are sitting there, the ice will refreeze around them," Petty Officer David Mosely, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Coast Guard, said Friday.
It's hoped the ships will finish the trip to Nome Friday. But there is no guarantee, as safety is the top priority. "We don't want an injury. We don't want an environmental spill," Mosely said.
Overnight, Nome residents were able to catch a glimpse of the ships on the horizon. More onlookers will watch Friday as the vessels cautiously cut their way closer.
On Thursday the ships made a big run, putting many miles behind them in a long day driving north to Nome. The advance was a welcome relief after much stop and go, particularly on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"Baby steps are over. We are all now out of our 'pampers' (Russian word for diapers) as Healy has found her groove with Renda trotting mindfully along behind," said Capt. Garay, the Alaska Marine Pilot who is on board the fuel ship, after the ships were on the move.
Throughout the day Thursday the two vessels kept a steady course toward Nome, closing the gap that at sunrise was about 70 miles to less than 13 miles by sunset.
Garay described an upbeat mood among the crews, who shared a song together via VHF radio, broadcasting to each other a Johnny Horton tune: "Way up North, north to Alaska. Way up North, north to Alaska. North to Alaska, I'm going north, the rush is on."
Late Thursday, Garay reported being able to see the lights of Nome, and Nome residents watching from beachfront homes were able to see the ships' lights from their windows, described as looking like balls of fire on the water.
Because travel is safer during the day and crews need rest, the pattern thus far has been to drive during the day, rest overnight, regroup and return to breaking ice after dawn.
Once the Renda and the Healy get to Nome, the fuel will be offloaded through a hose to shore. The hoses must be put in place and begin pumping fuel during daylight, but once they are flowing can run around the clock until the load is removed, a process projected to take about 36 hours.
The Renda, traveling to Alaska from the Russian far east, has been on the job for weeks. Healy's crew has been deployed for neally 8 months, delaying long awaited reunions with their families during the holidays to break trail for the Russian fuel tanker through the Bering Sea's winter ice pack.
Charging toward Nome, with the new presence on board of a former Healy commander and retired coast guard admiral brought in as a consultant, the ships' new mottos reflected the increasing momentum of the mood of the crews, said Garay: "Bring it on!" and "Come on Renda!"
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com