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Update from the Renda: 'Homeward Bound'

Capt. Pete Garay
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 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 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
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 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
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 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
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
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 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

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Update Jan 19 10:05 a.m., from Capt. Peter Garay, about three hours after the Renda completed transferring her fuel load to storage tanks on shore in Nome:

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Homeward  Bound

Tomorow (Friday) the Renda and Healy depart Nome for the "homeward" bound leg of each ship's respective   voyage.  

For the Renda's crew this marks the end of nine long months of working in ice with no breaks, no vacations, no cell phones and no computers. In short, none of the modern day luxuries that most of us take for granted. This is a crew worn thin not unlike the sailors of yesteryear who would often times spend countless months and sometimes years toiling before the mast. The hard reality of life aboard the Renda is thus: It is a  grinding existence rewarded only by Borscht, bread and a less than modest sum of Rubles. As to her living quarters, Renda is a floating steel cocoon whose hollow cavities are filled with weary-eyed seaman who like the Healy's crew share a simple wish. To return safely home.

If all goes well and she safely navigates her way back out of the pack it is probable that the only entry made in her log that will reflect the remarkable voyage she has just completed will be a short notation indicating the time along her track line coupled with the  Latitude  & Longitude of her position when Healy leaves her side as she exits the ice edge. 

With that done the legacy Renda leaves behind will be this: 

She (and her good crew) was the tanker who marked her place in our state's history books not by an oily wake,   but instead by a deed well done. 

This is a story of significant accomplishment about Alaskans and Russians working side by side with the United States Coast Guard.

While the role of the Renda is but a small one in a much larger picture her part was significant.

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Update Jan 14 5:12 p.m., from Capt. Carter Whalen:

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The Renda just made it into the final position.

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Update Jan 14 10:27 a.m., from Capt. Carter Whalen:

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Good morning. At 11 am this morning the Healy should begin moving ahead toward "The Parking spot," searching out the path of least resistance before Renda takes her place and marches forward. The mood is positive, the forecast for Sunday is favorable, the stage has been set.

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The original approach for both vessels was to be from East to West in a sweeping arc. As a result of visual ice observations, the approach was initiated last night from West to East. That approach could be completed as soon as today. Many might ask, "Why has this taken so long? Both vessels have been near Nome for some time now."  Patience has seen this mission through many challenges. Patience will afford this operation the best chance of success.

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Update Jan 14, sometime in the morning, from Capt. Peter Garay:

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Yesterday while picking our way through the hardened rubble field that we encountered eight miles south of Nome I sent my Friend Edward Itta in Barrow an E- mail asking him if there is an Inupiaq  term  for when the ice is uncooperative.
 

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To which Mayor Edward Itta replied:

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Pete,

'Siku iluaqsilaaga' - means the ice is not cooperating.  

'Siku tatiruq' - the ice is very tight; not loosening (sometimes because the ice has formed or piled on itself in such a way that it becomes interlocked).  

'Siku nuutqanaruq' - the ice is stopped; not moving.  

'Saqviatchuq' - no current.  

'Iikalginnaruq siku'- the ice is stopped because it is grounded (by ice ridges that are deep enough to be stopped by grounding on shoals or shallower water).  

'Siku nutqanaruq saqvaq suammigluni naga iluitgluni'- the ice is not moving because the current is too weak or from the wrong direction to move the ice.  

'Annugim aqmatinnitka' - the wind or lack thereof or blowing from the wrong direction is not favorable to opening the ice, etc.. 

Those are a few words and terms off the top of my head.  I know there's more (and probably more appropriate or applicable terms) but I'd need to ask around. Don't quote me on the Inupiaq spelling as those are my own and I haven't had Elsie check them. I often misspell my own Inupiaq terms! 

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 I wish  was with you  on this fine, fine adventure!! - Edward

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Seems to me Mayor Edward Ittas words reflect  well the value and wisdom that may be found in traditional local knowledge. Bottom line: there's much more to ice than what's found in the bottom of a martini glass.

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 As this next day unfolds I'm hoping my next question to the Mayor will be  "Is there an Inupiaq name / term for when the ice is nice?"

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Update Jan 13 9:32 p.m., from Capt. Carter Whalen, President of Alaska Marine Pilots and a colleague of Capt. Garay's who is following the mission from Dutch Harbor:

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"There's no easy road to any place worth going."  

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Update Jan 13 8:49 p.m., from Capt. Garay:

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The "How tough is tough" question has been settled. Not tough enough. Healy proved herself (again)  and found Renda the way. 

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2 .65 nm miles from Nome's causeway it was unanimously decided by all, these  two ships deserve an evening off. 

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Renda glided to an easy stop as she found a piece of the pack to rest in as soft as  a Goose down comforter. Healy bedded down nearby. 

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Everyone  can smell  the sweet spot. .28  cables bearing 073 degrees true from the Nome's harbor west breakwater entrance.  If history is to be made here is where it will happen.  

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Tomorrow officially  marks the day I run out of cigars. What to do? Park this ship proper and go get  the Partagas the Healy has told me they have waiting for me.

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Update Jan 13 4:55 p.m., from Capt. Garay:

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I think the path forward has been designed by the Zig Zag man himself.  Sea smoke rises from the fresh cut ruts in the road that the Healy has made.

As we plow ahead into these tracks I'd  like to share one of my favorite quotes: "Dry again said the crab to the tide pool. Replied the tide pool, 'So would you be mister crab if you too had to satisfy the insatiable sea twice a day.'"

I'm beginning to feel the plight of  the tide pool.

Hope we arrive soon.

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Update Jan 13 3:34 p.m., from Capt. Pete Garay, who reports that the ice around Nome is particularly tough:

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How tough is tough? For the first time since entering the pack the words "concrete wall" were used . 

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All stop. Healy scouting out ahead searching for a safe passage through this floating "cement city" of ice. From my perspective at the moment this is one of mother natures more formidable creations. As we all sit and wait, satellite imagery of this massive obstruction is now being analyzed to determine how we may continue safely toward Nome. 

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More to follow.

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Update Jan 13 1:48 p.m., from Capt. Pete Garay:

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We're not going anywhere too fast. 

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I characterize the ice as "cement city" between us and the dock. A lot of people are scratching their heads. Healy is out scouting and satellite imagery of the ice pack is being analyzed. [We're all] trying to figure out [how to get] through what I would describe as one of nature's most formidable obstructions that I've seen.

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We are going to have to pick and choose a path. But we made it through all of the other obstructions and hurdles that have been put in our way and I am confident that with enough time and tide we'll get through this one, too. 

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Update Jan. 13 10:06 a.m., by Capt. Pete Garay, who is readying to oversee the safe passage of the Renda into her final parking spot in Nome once the sun rises:

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Well the old adage seems to be proving itself true, "It's not over until the fat lady sings." As our morning unfolds it has become abundantly clear.  These last few miles could be our most challenging. 

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Best part. You can pull up a lounge chair and watch the whole show live from the beach. Too nippy out for that option? Here's a dollop of local knowledge. The Breakers bar is the only bar in town that has a window that looks south out over the Bering Sea. As I recall seating is rather limited so best grab a box seat while you can.

Best / Pete

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Update Jan. 12, close to midnight, by Capt. Pete Garay, Alaska Marine Pilot stationed on the Renda to coordinate the vessel's safe passage in and out of Alaska waters, sent as the ships pulled into their overnight resting spot with the lights of Nome visible in the distance beneath a rising moon:

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I  have been lucky in both love and in life. Not many get to make the kind of voyage that I just completed. Tomorrow, barring any major complications, this voyage will end and another will begin. But before I close out this short chapter in my life, and while Alaska Dispatch is still inclined to publish what I've been writing, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the folks who were a part of this team effort and for the role(s) each played to make this mission to Nome a success.

While most of you I will never meet, I will remember these last ten days for the rest of my life.

It was a rare display of being the best we can all be. Thanks.

Kind regards to all,
Captain Peter S. Garay

One last thing -- I'm really going to miss my daily borscht.

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Update Jan. 12, 2:00 p.m. by Capt. Pete Garay, Alaska Marine Pilot stationed on the Renda to coordinate the vessel's steering in Alaska waters:

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Pre-arrival report:

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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. With the Admiral now aboard Healy, yesterday's (and today's) motto is "Bring it on," along with "Come on Renda!"

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With spirits rising like a flood tide, a little Johnny Horton even crackled out across the VHF radios between the two ships. "Way up North, north to Alaska/Way up North, north to Alaska/North to Alaska/I'm going north, the rush is on."

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Renda is now just a little southwest of Nome.

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Yesterday's arial recon flight showed the next 40 some odd miles will be through medium first-year ice 12-24 inches thick with a few open leads and some Pollyannas the size of the Dimond Mall ice rink. The next 17 miles will be tough. 80 percent of the ice thickness is estimated to be greater than one meter.

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Making it through these last two legs of our voyage we then arrive 3 miles off Nome, where we will encounter -- for the first time -- shore-fast ice.

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There are lots and lots of questions about how Renda will behave in these new ice conditions. The high level of concern is due to the fact that this is where we must find stable ice conditions so that the shoreside support team can construct a safe "ice mooring" for Renda to berth alongside.That being done, I'm confident we can safely tie Renda up so that she may then deliver her valuable load of cargo to the good citizens of Nome.

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One last note: This morning while on the bridge Michail Shestakov (Vitus Marine's representative who is riding aboard the ship) asked, "Peter, do you know the difference between and optimist and a pessimist?"

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Shrugging my shoulders, I replied "no".

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"A pessimist is a very well informed optimist," Michail answered.

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I'm not sure what Michail's question has to do with anything, except for the fact that without Michail's eternal optimism this ship would have never made it this far. That said, Michail now shares my earlier sentiments about sighting the church steeple of Nome.

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Update, date/time unknown, by Capt. Pete Garay, Alaska Marine Pilot stationed on the Renda to coordinate the vessel's steering in Alaska waters:

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Some stress cracks are beginning to show. 25 miles to go through the toughest ice we've seen so far -- so thick it's even stopping the Healy. Going to take some figuring out. After we crawl through this, it's reported that there exists a big gigantic crack in the ice all the way to Nome.

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Now for the finale.

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A coaster by all definitions for sure. Make sure you spell check the word "Oracano" -- it's the Norwegian spelling for Hurricane and I probably got it wrong. (It's "orkan," reflected below -- ed.)

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Many, many years ago as a young mariner I took an assignment as the "paper captain" aboard an ocean-going, foreign-flagged tugboat called the "Solano". Our job was to tow a dead ship from Hawaii to the Ulstienvik ship yard near Alesund, Norway where she was to be converted into a factory trawler for the then "new" Americanized pollock fishery.

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Off the coast of England we stopped near Bath to pick up our North Sea pilot. With about five days steaming time left ahead of us, both the  pilot and myself settled in for what we thought would be an uneventful last leg of the Solano's journey.

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Three days out of Alesund we started tracking on our weather facsimile a huge depression that was rapidly developing in the mid-Atlantic and starting to come our way. At first neither the pilot nor myself were too concerned about this new system, because we both figured we'd be long tucked into town before it got near our position.

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As we drew closer to our destination, the storm upgraded itself to a hurricane or as the Norwegians were to later call it in the newspapers, "a once-in-a-hundred years orkan." And while it looked like we might feel the edges of it, we were still confident that we would arrive well before it overtook our vessel.

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Eight hours out from Alesund, when I could see the loom of the city's lights, I remember making a comment to the pilot: "We got her made in the shade now, pilot."

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"Son, just because you can see the steeple of the church doesn't mean you're home," he replied.

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Being young and seemingly bullet-proof, I remember thinking, "Yeah, but we are as good as gold this time around."

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One hour later, the maelstrom hit with indescribable fury. We lost the ship we were towing. As the eye of the storm passed directly over us, the tug's wheelhouse windows were blown out of their rubber gaskets by the confused seas. In the middle of this melee I put on a survival suit and wrote my wife a farewell note and tucked it inside the neoprene suit, because I believed I was going to die.

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My thoughts were these: If my body were to be found bobbing around in the aftermath of the storm's flotsam, at least she would be able to read my last thoughts, which were (and still are) I love you.

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Fortunately, all survived.

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As the Renda makes her approach off the coast of Nome and all who have been involved with this mission, begin making their final preparations for the last leg/phase of this journey, once again in my life I can see the steeple of the church. Literally.

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I share this sea story with all only because it's fitting for our current circumstances. With winter's grip quickly tightening around Nome, my ears are burning with this old pilot's words of wisdom.

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Update Jan. 12, 10:00 a.m. by Capt. Pete Garay, Alaska Marine Pilot stationed on the Renda to coordinate the vessel's steering in Alaska waters:

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Seventy-one miles due east of St. Lawrence Island. Numerous ice ridges or "Toros," as the Russians call them, have stopped Renda multiple times overnight. Each time this happens the Healy must stop, turn and circle back around her charge. Down her port side and back up the starboard, then crossing Renda's bow closer then you could heave a monkey's fist. At Healy's command, Renda's engines are engaged full ahead.

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Thirty seconds later, Renda starts to literally inch forward: .1 knots, .2, .3, .4 --  then 1 knot, 2, 3 and, if we are lucky, finally 7 knots. The whole unstuck show lasts about 45 minutes.

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The larger ridges that catch and stop Renda each time don't let her pass so easily. Once we come to a complete halt, the grinding starts as the ice has its way with Renda. As the halved sheets of ice stack themselves up against Renda her whole hull rumbles and begins to pound like a gigantic tom tom drum. 

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This evening we had six breakouts before making some real headway toward Nome. 50 miles left

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I'm having more fun than Mark Twain's life on the Mississippi.

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Update Jan. 12, 12:34 a.m., from Alaska Dispatch staff:

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By midnight the ships appeared to have made a good late evening run, pulling 30 miles closer to Nome. That's according to GPS tracking data available from the Healy's web cam, which at midnight placed the Healy within 70 miles of the city.

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Update Jan. 11, 3:45 p.m., by Capt. Carter Whalen, president of Alaska Marine Pilots, stationed in Dutch Harbor:

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It's remarkable when you think about it, looking back one month ago when Vitus Marine called to make an inquiry about getting a ship into Nome sometime around Christmas.

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My first-blush answer was "unlikely," due to ice and the ability to get the Tanker Renda inside the harbor and to the berth in ice conditions. Soon, the United States Coast Guard was involved and the medium breaker Healy was designated as the Renda's escort.

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For weeks we held morning meetings with community, state and federal agencies. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the USCG, Department of Environmental Conservation, the Nome Harbor Master, scientists, ourselves as State Licensed Marine Pilots in western Alaska, and many others. Most of us involved gave this operation little chance of success -- though most of us were reluctant to say this publicly.

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Now, one month later, having put 200 of 300 ice miles astern Renda, both ships are deep into the heart of an Alaskan winter. My good friend and fellow marine pilot Capt. Pete Garay is aboard and conducting communications between Renda's Captain Sergey and the officers aboard the breaker Healy. The mandate of a State-licensed Marine Pilot is to protect life, property and the marine environment within the boundary of state waters out to three miles from shore.

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Capt. Garay will see to the safe conduct of the Tanker Renda as they proceed as close as is safe to deliver the cargo of 1.4 million gallons of fuel. Since entering the ice edge, the Renda and Healy have worked to overcome environmental, cultural, and procedural challenges that threatened to terminate this mission in its infancy.

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As the point of contact for Capt. Garay aboard Renda, involved in passing information along between Coast Guard operations shoreside and Captain Garay out on Renda, I can tell you that no more impressive assembly on Alaska's frozen sea has been. Not in recent history anyway. The Captain and Crew of Healy, and those USCG personnel conducting the meetings, providing shoreside support and oversight of the mission -- if only the general public could know these men and women as I do.

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The conversations that surround this mission are honest, candid and respectful. 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 many of the limited words he can send to explain how capable, confident and knowledgable Capt. Sergey is aboard Renda. An unsung hero already, as he and his crew have been asked to do the improbable.

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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 ice pack. With a quiet confidence, they press ahead. Healy is their guide when progress is steady -- Healy there nearby as a friend when the going gets tougher.

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Very "Shackleton-esque," this voyage is a modern-day trip back in time. And 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.

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In a world full of bad news, in a world lacking in adventure, this is what inspires me. With a better understanding of it all, maybe it will inspire some of you as well.

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Update Jan. 11, 2:30 p.m., by Stacey Smith, project manager for Vitus Marine, LLC, the company that chartered the Renda on behalf of a fuel buyer in Nome:

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The wind, current, and ice pressure remain a constant challenge and the vessels actually lost 4-5 miles of ground drifting south with the ice pack last night. The vessels are just 100 miles south of Nome.

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Today is a “Logistics Day” and Healy is not as focused on icebreaking, rather on safely deploying their on-board helicopter. The helicopter arrived into Nome about 12:30 p.m. and will be taking a consultant for Vitus Marine out to Healy and perhaps over to Renda.

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The consultant is retired Coast Guard Admiral Jeff Garrett with extensive ice-breaking experience. We are delighted to be able to draw upon this newfound resource and thank him in advance for his willingness to share his knowledge. Little progress is expected today.

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Update Jan. 11, 11:30 a.m. by Capt. Pete Garay, Alaska Marine Pilot stationed on the Renda to coordinate the vessel's steering in Alaska waters:

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This morning the captain showed me a framed picture of a Russian Icon that he always carries with him. It is a colorful piece of needle-point art that was made by his mother. The Icon is a Russian patron saint for all mariners. Learning this, I asked him if this guy could join us on the bridge for the rest of the voyage, to which he replied, "Of course". The Icon is now part of the Renda's bridge team. 

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Saint so and so's name is best left unsaid until the completion of Renda's voyage. 

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This ship has a mind of its own. 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 only maneuver of the day (yesterday) which was even marginally successful in getting her unstuck (and only for a few miles) was through a combination of ice-breaking techniques called the herring bone and plunger.

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While a full explanation can be found in any good ice maneuvering manual as to how these maneuvers are technically executed, a very rudimentary explanation is as follows. The herring bone cracks the ice alongside the ice bound vessel, thus relieving the pressure, while the plunger draws away that broken ice allowing the stuck vessel to pull free. 

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Typical commands that ring out daily on the Renda's bridge:

Slow ahead -- Samiy Maliy Vperiod
Full ahead -- Polniy Vperiod
Stop engines -- Ostandvit Mashinu
Slow astern -- Samily Maliy Nazad
Full astern -- Polniy Nazad
Hard to Port -- Levo Na Bort
Hard to Starboard -- Pravo Na Bort
Midships -- Priamo Rul

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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. 

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The morning is sunny and clear with the wind chill at 42 degrees below zero. 

 

Update Jan. 10, 5:30 p.m. from Capt. Carter Whalen, president of Alaska Marine Pilots

Today's progress is about 50'. Healy is trying to free Renda right now from an ice ridge.

There is better, more favorable ice ahead.

Many factors at work out there. A tough day for all.
That's fifty feet progress today.

Tough sledding.

 

Update Jan. 10, 3 p.m. by Capt. Pete Garay, Alaska Marine Pilot stationed on the Renda to coordinate the vessel's steering in Alaska waters:

Here's how Renda's day has begun: Up at 6 a.m. to watch ice. At 7:30 we were under way, or at least trying to get under way. Michail has the communications between the two ships and I am watching the movie "The Change-Up" on his iPhone on the bridge. Captain Sergey is also watching while Renda is a big "stuck-'un" in this field of mashed-potatoes-looking stuff which has all the qualities of viscous honey. I'm not sure if this movie is as funny as it seems or if it's just helping to bleed off some of the stress in the air. We both agree the character Tatillina is easy on the eyes.

On a serious note, good humor on the bridge of the Renda is our most valuable commodity at the moment. "The Change-Up" helped with its constant maintenance. Unfortunately, as we watch, there has been no real "change up" in Renda's progress as she has only made about .5 cables (less than one-tenth of a nautical mile) progress toward Nome since this morning. 

Healy has gone on ahead on a scouting mission and is on her way back to assist. The ice report ahead is favorable. We just need to get un-stuck and get Renda to make her first morning appearance back in "hurry-hurry" mode.

It's time to break out the Renda's totem again as it worked for us yesterday.

I feel Renda's engine vibrating. Back to the workbench. 

 

Update Jan. 10, 11:45 a.m., by Stacey Smith, project manager for Vitus Marine, LLC, the company that chartered the Renda on behalf of a fuel buyer in Nome:

The Renda made 53 miles of progress yesterday. The temperatures are warming up a little bit to 15 to 20 below, and the winds are forecast to diminish starting Thursday. These factors are favorable and fuel the crew's and committee's optimism.

As of 9:30 this morning there were 101 remaining miles of ice to navigate. The ice is varying concentrations of around 2-3 feet thickness. With 15 miles made good on Jan. 8 and 53 miles gained on Jan. 9, it is difficult to say what today will bring. We are taking it day by day and unable to truly give an appropriate ETA. If there is something that should be highlighted, it would be the continued dedication of the ship's crew indicative of the United States Coast Guard’s traditions of service.

 

Jan. 10, 10:00 a.m. by Capt. Carter Whalen, president of Alaska Marine Pilots, stationed in Dutch Harbor:

Renda is approximately 100 miles from Nome. Both Renda and Healy had a rest period during the night. They lost about 4 nautical miles during this rest period.

Renda and Healy are back under way once again this morning. Ice pressure from the West has increased slightly. This pressure is not directly a result of ice thickness.

Renda and Healy made 53 nautical miles progress yesterday, Jan. 9. It was a very difficult yet very successful day.

 

Update Jan. 10, 8:30 a.m., by Stacey Smith, project manager for Vitus Marine, LLC, the company that chartered the Renda on behalf of a fuel buyer in Nome:

The Renda and Healy shut down for the night after making over 50 miles yesterday. Ice was described as thicker, but more consistent, allowing for more continuous forward progress.

 

Update Jan. 9, 6:45 p.m., by Capt. Peter Garay, the Alaska Marine pilot stationed on board the Russian-flagged fuel tanker Renda.

One hundred miles to go! We just crossed the mark. Renda and Healy have finally got it together. They seem to be progressing fairly well. [The] learning and understanding curves have been fabulous.

It's probably the most awesome voyage I've had in my 40 years of going to sea.

Optimism is running high, everybody is working well together and Mother Nature is cooperating for a change. The first 100 miles we had to literally crawl-claw ourselves through.

Hope to see you in Nome. All the best to you, - Capt. Pete.

 

Update Jan. 8, 1:30 p.m., by Stacey Smith, project manager for Vitus Marine, LLC, the company that chartered the Renda on behalf of a fuel buyer in Nome:

(Note: It now looks like the Renda will not arrive in Nome until Wednesday, Jan. 11. That's the revised ETA given by Vitus Marine after monitoring the ship's progress over the weekend. - Jill Burke.)

The Renda and Healy made approximately 15 nautical miles of progress yesterday. As a safeguard to crew endurance, the vessels shut down for a 6 hour resting period last night. As of this morning the vessels are once again making headway through the ice.

 

Update Jan. 7, 10 p.m. by Capt. Pete Garay, Alaska Marine Pilot stationed on the Renda to coordinate the vessel's steering in Alaska waters:

Renda and Healy are in the grip of some colossal forces. Cold, cold. Minus twenty and dropping. Today was tough going, with only a few more miles under our belts toward Nome. Numerous obstacles have presented themselves. For instance, for the greater part of the day tide(s) and current continue to "compress" the ice around Renda, causing the ice pack to behave like a giant set of brake pads.

The ship has literally run into the primary "headwall" of the lead pack ice that is flowing down from the Bering Strait. While "stopped" here resting, all aboard are assessing the difficult terrain ahead. Healy's old track has filled with "Shuga" which is Russian for ice that has been broken by a ship's hull and propeller.

With a change of tides the ship's doppler log is now indicating more favorable conditions as the ice is now decompressing with fewer pressure ridges building against Renda's hull. Healy is once again steaming into position to try and break the Renda out again. The "team," both on sea and off, have spent the better part of the day making adjustments to our ice management plan. Site-specific ice recon flights were flown today to survey the next 45 miles, which appears to be heavy first year, meter-thick ice. If we can get through this we've got a little breathing room until we get close to Nome, as the pack thins a bit back to 12-18 inches.

For now, we are back to old fashioned traditional ice work. Renda is ramming the pack as she waits for Healy's assistance.

This ship and her Captain are doing everything in their power to make Nome.

The ship is shaking big time with each new plunge into the ice. The air vibrates with the growling sound of Healy pulling alongside Renda as she begins to take up station ahead of Renda. Chunks of ice the size of Volkswagens are breaking loose from the pack and are churning madly along the sides of her hull. It is a close, breath holding, aggressive pass. Exciting. I can see why men (and women, Captain Havlik on the Healy) are drawn to this as a way of life.

Opening the Arctic will take many more with the same kind of mettle that these two captains share. 

 

Update Jan. 7, 11:30 a.m. by Vitus Marine, the company that hired the Russian tanker Renda to deliver fuel to Nome:

The Renda and Healy did make good progress overnight. They were stopped against an ice ridge just before dawn this morning and decided to wait until daylight to proceed.

The Renda and Healy continue to struggle to match speeds and maintain safe distances between the two vessels. When the speed of the Healy is reduced (due to ice conditions) the Renda needs to be much closer, whereas maintaining higher speeds allows for the vessels to remain farther apart. 

The Renda occasionally will get squeezed in a ridge if the Healy is too far out ahead. The Healy then has to circle around and make a ‘relief cut’ so they can proceed. Nome is less than 200 Nautical Miles away.

We expect to make good progress today and could be as close as a couple of days out.

 

Update Jan. 6, 9 a.m. by Capt. Pete Garay, Alaska Marine Pilot stationed on the Renda to coordinate the vessel's steering in Alaska waters:

BERING SEA -- Today the crew of the Renda will celebrate Russian X-mas. To help celebrate this holiday I brought along for the ride a jumbo Tom turkey and a whole bone-in Virginia Ham. Dinner will run all day and be of biblical proportions.

As to our mission to Nome -- temperatures are dropping fast now. Fortunately, the seas are relatively flat so the Renda isn't having to contend with any heavy freezing spray. Still, the crew is having to work on clearing the decks of accumulated snow and ice. In fact, as I type this they are outside my state room, beating on the frozen life boat davits with baseball bats. By the sound of things I think they just busted something.

Now there's lots of laughing, probably at the fact that the pilot's beauty rest has been interrupted.

Our departure draft was 7.4 meters, as observed by the crew of the Gyrfalcon. This limits how close we can approach the jetties.

A couple of simple requests: Make sure the ends of the jetties are well lit. If possible have the tide gauge at the cells cleared so we can get a mark two eyeball-reading of how much water we actually will have at any given time.

Optimum plan is to remain in 13 meters so if necessary Healy can break us out at completion of offload. Since we may be 4 days offloading we are going to be frozen in tight, and the tighter the better so as to have a stable platform to work from.

Ice moorings: I propose we have the ice augers and bits stationed on the ice ready for deployment. Once the ship is in her final position stable holes can be drilled, posts set, and filled with water. Railroad ties could work. Maybe someone can fashion a cruciform bit of sorts on top of them. In terms of lines since we are going to be so far offshore -- 7 cables from the outer cell -- I wouldn't bother with lines that would have to span this distance. Let's plan on using the ship's lines, which are all on drums. Tomorrow, when the seas have abated further I will inventory and inspect the ship's mooring arrangements for their suitability.

This may be a slow process, so it will be important to take our time and make absolutely sure the Renda is properly stabilized prior to the commencement of loading operations. Even though time is money, a little extra caution here would be wise.

 

Update Jan. 5, 4 p.m. by Capt. Pete Garay, Alaska Marine Pilot stationed on the Renda to coordinate the vessel's steering in Alaska waters. Passing 70 miles due east of the "Galapagos of the Bering Sea," the Pribilof Islands of Saint George and Saint Paul. 

BERING SEA -- The Renda, unlike the usual groaning sounds that most ships make when laboring through heavy seas, has beautiful harmonics. As winter's gale force winds find their way through the many cracks, crevices, and orifices of Renda's heavy metal skin, she produces a lonely, woodwind-type sound. This noise drifts randomly throughout the entire ship's wheelhouse making for good sleepy time tunes.

That said, I'll bet she'll start to groan-a-plenty (at least her hull will) once she enters the ice. Speaking of which, the business of ice navigation begins Friday. For now, the Healy remains on station ahead of us by about 4 miles. 

Once in the ice, depending on its thickness, that gap could close to less than 3 cables (one cable equals 600 feet) as the Renda will need to ride close on the Healy's heels. Thereon out it will be hand steering and hard work for the Renda's bridge team and little sleep for Sergey Kopytov, the Renda's master, and Pavel Bovt, her chief engineer.

For these two guys it's just going to be another day at the office.

Ice and all navigation concerns aside, and on to a more personal note of possible interest. What's life like on a Russian Tramper (which the Renda is as she has no set schedule), you might ask? A quick snapshot is as follows.

I have been issued the following toiletries:

  • Two rolls of toilet paper, commercial grade, that replicates crete paper in texture and strength.
  • One bar of lux soap
  • A brand-new "Kermit the Frog" towel, still in its cellophane packaging.

My mattress is no Simon's "Beauty Rest," but neither is anyone else's. All are custom imports straight from the hard and flat factory. Russian (and only Russian) music mixed with cigarette smoke fills the air at night. No one has a tan. English isn't the second language. To entertain themselves they still play chess. The irony of good humor is not lost on any of them (true of all 
Russians) and to pass the time all engage in lots of talk, talk. If I were to render life aboard the Renda down to a few choice words, those select words would be "Spartan, with a big beating heart."

Until tomorrow.


Update Jan. 5, 8:40 a.m. by Capt. Pete Garay, Alaska Marine Pilot stationed on the Renda to coordinate the vessel's steering while in Alaska waters:

Any number of times, this mission to Nome could have come unraveled and fallen apart. Yesterday was one of those times. Ten miles out of Dutch Harbor the Renda suffered an engine casualty and as such was forced to turn around and limp back to Dutch Harbor where she anchored up for repairs. During the course of this breakdown, the engineering crew aboard the Renda removed a burned-out valve from one of the ship's main cylinders and, short of a replacement, fabricated a new one.

My hat goes off to the Renda's "Black Gang". Because of their ingenuity they saved the day and maybe even this mission. They have earned a thank you from the folks of Nome.

With the engine now back on line the Renda is once again steaming North at a respectable speed (for a ship of her age) of 10.8 knots. Estimated Time of Arrival at the ice edge is Jan. 6 at 12:00 p.m.

I'm starting to warm to this old gal as she is riding comfortably in a rough sea with her propellor churning out good vibrations. I am also begining to enjoy meeting the Renda's crew and in particular the two women crew members who call this ship their home.

The ship's "house mouse" is named Valentina. She has a smile that would melt Nome. The cook's name is Lubov and she makes the second-best Borscht soup I have ever had. My grandmother (Gizella Tarcz) made the best, so needless to say, all is in good order out here.

After I die, if I can't talk the good lord into sending me back as a raven, then I want to come back as a ships engineer. These guys were awesome. Grease, oil, and muck everywhere. Ship's rolling around like crazy, and Micheal telling me "See, no problem," all the while these guys are trying to crawl into a hot cylinder head while holding their wrenches between their teeth. Almost as good as the scene in the "Sand Pebbles" where Steve McQueen is teaching the oiler about "Live Steam."

Jan. 4, 1:00 p.m. by Capt. Carter Whalen, president of Alaska Marine Pilots, stationed in Dutch Harbor:

I bid Capt. (Pete) Garay farewell and good luck this morning here in Dutch Harbor, not before I managed to stuff a dozen cigars into his sea bag, of course. Final meetings were held last night, final preparations were finished this morning. And so it begins.

At 9:50 a.m. (Jan. 4), the Russian Tanker Renda made departure from Dutch Harbor and entered the open Bering Sea on Northerly Courses.

Beyond the protection of the harbor, this voyage was met with stiff resistance in the face of Gale Northwesterlies and 15-foot seas. Heavy blowing snow has reduced visibility in and around Dutch Harbor.

The first three hours of this voyage into the heart of an Alaskan winter were slow going.

At 1300 hours the Renda was approximately 9 nautical miles from Dutch Harbor, with a speed made good of little more than 3.0 knots. Unexpectedly slow progress in an expectedly unpredictable endeavor. As marine pilots in Western Alaska, the only constant we can count on is change.

I'll be in contact with Capt. Garay daily via Satellite Phone. He'll provide progress and weather updates, as well as sea state and ice condition reports once beyond the ice edge. For the time being, I expect those aboard will settle in for a bowl of authentic borscht and fresh-baked Russian bread, catching spoonfuls between the pounding and pitching of heavy seas.

The rest of us involved in this mission to deliver fuel to Nome can only hope that this small orange ship in an angry gray sea will eventually make better speed. Or we'll all be watching this event unfold over weeks, not days.

Either way, from the pilots perspective, this effort is very "Shackletonesque". Like the Endurance, I have no doubt that there will be delays and detours, and adaptation along the way. As part of a much larger team, we're thankful and excited for the opportunity to contribute to this Alaskan effort.

Capt. Pete Garay is aboard the Russian tanker Renda, on a mission to deliver fuel to iced-in Nome. Capt. Carter Whalen is in Dutch Harbor receiving daily updates on the mission's progress.