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Slow going for Russian tanker Renda and its fuel for Nome

Jill Burke
The Coast Guard's Healy and Renda prepare to leave Nome Jan. 20, 2012.
USCG Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst photo
The bow of the Renda at sunset on Wednesday.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
A member of the Renda's crew.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The Renda offloads fuel to the city of Nome on Wednesday.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
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
Mark Smith, CEO of Vitus Marine, stands in front of the Renda on January 18.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
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
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
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 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
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
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 Renda off the coast of Nome on Monday, January 16.
Photo by Sue Greenly
The Renda off the coast of Nome on Monday, January 16.
Photo by Sue Greenly
Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo speaks about the Renda delivering fuel to Nome while Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski listens.
Ben Anderson 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
Skier crosses the frozen Bering Sea ice to the Russian tanker Renda on Sunday.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission Da
The US Coast Guard cutter Healy offshore from Nome.
Ben Anderson photo
Residents of Nome sit and look out at the Healy and Renda offshore on Jan. 15, 2012.
Ben Anderson photo
Nome residents look out at the Renda and Healy on Jan. 15, 2012.
Ben Anderson photo
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 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 Renda, left, and the Healy seen from Nome's causeway on Saturday, Jan. 14.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The Healy breaks ice near the Port of Nome on Saturday, January 14.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
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
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 U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy breaks ice just offshore of Nome on Friday.
Photo by Pat Hahn and Sue Greenly
The Healy and the Renda off the coast of Nome at daybreak on Friday, January 13.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
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
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 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
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
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
UAV in flight over the Nome harbor.
Photo by Matthew Smith, KNOM Radio Mission
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
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 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
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
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
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 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
An update on the Healy and Renda's progress as of 8 a.m., Jan. 7, 2012.
Illustration courtesy Vitus Marine
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 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 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 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
The Renda as seen from the cutter Healy on January 6.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
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
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 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
Renda captain and crew on Jan. 5, one day before the tanker was to begin confronting Bering Sea ice.
Image courtesy: Pete Garay
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 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
Russian fuel tanker Renda in Dutch Harbor, Alaska
US Coast Guard photo
Pete Garay is piloting the Russian ice-breaking fuel tanker Renda in Alaska waters
Photo courtesy: Alaska Marine Pilots
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 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 sailors driving 1.3 million gallons of fuel north through the Bering Sea to ice-blocked Nome, Alaska, have left open water and entered the ice pack, sending the tandem ships into the heart of their challenging journey.

The threshold crossing wasted no time delivering trouble. By the time darkness fell, the Coast Guard's ice-breaking cutter Healy had to double back and punch the Renda free at least three times. The fuel tanker had become stuck in ice and the Healy was forced to stop and slice into the ice around the larger vessel. Tracking data shows the Healy was in a near dead stop for about four hours Friday afternoon. By about six Friday evening, the ships had resumed their journey at a slowed pace, about 5 or 6 knots, said Petty Officer David Mosley with the Coast Guard’s public affairs office.

"The ice conditions are giving us a number of challenging issues," Mosley said. "We can break it open but it is quickly closing."

Nightfall will make the challenges even greater. The closer the ships travel together, the more alert they must be to prevent knocking into each other. If they can't keep good watch, if the Renda gets stuck again they may have to stay put until daylight, he said.

The Healy, a more capable ice ship than the Renda, is able to break the ice floes. But the chunks are coming together quickly, creating a challenging dynamic between how the Healy moves, the Renda's tailgating and its ability to navigate the newly cut open channel. 

"They are moving on at a crawl," Mosely said late Friday night.

The evolving challenges come on the same day the crew of the Renda celebrated Russian Christmas. Capt. Peter Garay, the Alaska Marine Pilot stationed on the vessel to lead it in and out of state waters, brought with him a jumbo turkey and ham for a day-long holiday dinner, undoubtedly interrupted by the serious business of maneuvering safely to Nome.

Over 390 nautical miles, the ships must navigate ice chunks of varying size and depth. Passing Nunivak Island, the ice was 8 to 10 inches thick. That should increase as the ships approach Nome.

Mid-afternoon Friday, the ice was nearly twice that deep as the tandem vessels headed toward even deeper ice, according to Kathleen Cole, an ice scientist with the National Weather  Service who is consulting on the mission. About 19 miles northwest of Nunavak Island Friday evening, the ships were encountering 5-foot-deep sections from pressure ridges – thin, towering ice walls that snake across flatter, “pancake” ice that comprises the bulk of the pack.

All in all it’s “going really well,” Cole said from her Anchorage office Friday.

She’s monitoring the ice pack via computers and satellite images, while the Coast Guard scouts the ice by flying above. Cole has been relieved to learn that her assessments have synced up with the real conditions the sailors are encountering. “Spot on,” was the report she got at Friday’s morning briefing.

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That’s good news as the crews plow through ice trying to take the most direct route -- and the one of least resistance. Tracking the thinner bands of ice helps with the decision making.

With the Healy leading the way, the Russian ice-breaking fuel tanker Renda has been able to maintain a speed of 6 to 7 knots, said Stacey Smith, Project Manager for Vitus Marine, LLC, the company that hired the ship. “We are feeling very hopeful,” she said.

Also, late Thursday, Vitus Marine learned that the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation had cleared the ship’s entry into Nome waters to make its delivery. Because the winter-based mission was outside the scope of Vitus Marine’s existing oil-spill-response plan, the company had to show that it could manage a fuel delivery in icy conditions.

With that regulatory hurdle out of the way, the goal now is to “get through the ice and find our way to Nome,” Smith said. Once there, the ships, their crews, Vitus Marine, the city of Nome and the fuel purchaser will collectively evaluate whether it’s safe to take the next step – offloading fuel.

Because of two pressure ridges that have formed outside the Nome harbor, it’s likely the Renda will need to park 140 feet or so from the entrance, transferring fuel by hose to shore over the ice. The city of Nome has built a snow ramp to support and guide the hose to its transfer point on land.

As the ship makes its way to Nome, the crew has worked to keep the Renda’s decks clear of snow and ice. Early Friday morning, they were doing this with a baseball bat, whacking away at the cranes that hold the lifeboats, Garay said.

The mission to Nome is being closely watched. Many Alaskans are hoping it will succeed, proving that winter travel in Alaska’s icy seas is possible, even if only in an emergency. A few others see the mission to deliver fuel as overly risky and unnecessary. Still others view it as symbolic of the United States' need to be better prepared for Arctic defense and commerce. Whether this single journey to fill a one-time need in a remote community will create momentum for developing an expanded U.S. ice- breaking fleet is unknown.

“I would be happy if we never ship through the ice again,” said Jason Evans, chairman of Sitnasuak Native Corp., which commissioned the delivery on behalf of its subsidiary, Bonanza fuel.

While the mission is certainly extraordinary, he doesn’t view it as any different from fuel deliveries on the East Coast and in the Great Lakes Region, where the Coast Guard routinely escorts ships through adverse conditions.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com