NOME -- In this Northwestern Alaska town that runs up against Norton Sound, the usual white plain of sea ice that marks the ocean at this time of year has a new, jarring sight: two ships, bright red and massive, sitting less than a half-mile offshore. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy and the Russian fuel tanker Renda, after a daunting and occasionally uncertain journey spanning a week and a half, have arrived.
Sunday afternoon, there was no hose yet running from the Renda to Nome, where a 1.3 million-gallon payload of fuel will eventually be dropped. As with many aspects of the mission, this has become a waiting game, as the Renda rests in one place, allowing the ice to set hard enough around to prohibit any movement during the delicate transfer of fuel across the thick shore ice.
At a lookout point not far from the tank farm that is the fuel's ultimate destination, residents come and go in their trucks and SUVs. Some have brought their children, others their binoculars.
One Nome resident, Jane Murphy, said that the community was just excited about the whole thing, knowing the logistics that went into getting the fuel here. Another resident sitting in his truck to avoid the subzero temperatures said it was a once-in-a-lifetime event; a lookout had been full of cars the night before as the Healy maneuvered in the darkness, carving up the ice close to shore, in search of a spot the Renda could be frozen in place but still broken free once her cargo had been offloaded.
Sunday, the only activity to be seen involved parties traveling out onto the ice in order to check its thickness or conduct other research around the ships -- trying to determine if it's yet safe enough to begin assembling the hose that will transfer all that fuel. The fuel transfer process must begin during daylight hours, another commodity in short supply this far north, this time of year. There was an outside chance assembly would begin before nightfall, but most didn't sound optimistic.
Coast Guard Lt. William Albright was working on maintaining a "safety zone" intended for the Renda and where the hose would run. A 50-yard perimeter will exist around the hose -- once it's assembled, that is. His job was to keep onlookers from going out to get a closer look at the ship on potential weak spots in the ice.
"There are a few people that are curious," Albright says, before pointing to a gap in the ice that he called a wintertime "superhighway" for subsistence hunters going after seals out on the sea ice.
"The locals have been very helpful in identifying the routes over the ice," Albright says. "They're the experts."
The unusual sight of the ships on Nome's horizon is just another step in a long odyssey: bad weather prevented the usual final delivery of fuel in November, and the process since then has consisted of hiring a tanker, getting Coast Guard assistance with icebreaking, federal waivers to expedite the process, and, of course, traveling hundreds of miles in subarctic midwinter through thick ice.
Now, it's another "hurry up and wait" moment as the ships wait to begin transferring fuel to Nome.
During a press event Sunday, representatives from numerous government agencies -- along with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell -- heaped praise on one another for their respective roles in the mission.
While it was a bit of a love-fest, the interagency cooperation has indeed been significant.
"The current operation is over years of relationship building that Coast Guard and everyone has done to make these things possible when you have a crisis," Coast Guard Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo said. "This is historic in a lot of ways … but it's also only the halfway point."
Meanwhile, other groups were thinking ahead to the other half, including the upcoming fuel transfer. John Kotula, manager of marine vessels for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said in addition to amending the spill contingency plan for Vitus Marine, the shipping company that hired the Renda to operate in the conditions in the Nome harbor, the DEC was taking numerous precautions to prevent or contain any potential mishaps that might occur during the fuel transfer.
"There are tactics designed to recover oil in these types of conditions," Kotula said. "We've done a lot of preparatory work on the ice. We had an ice road made, made up of snow for the most part, so that acts as an absorbent type of material in case we did have a spill." The hose will lay atop that road, Kotula said. The road also allowed them to pre-stage equipment that will allow for fast response in the case of a spill.
It's not an entirely unique spill response setup, since they've used tactics similar to what they would use in the Nome Harbor on other spills on frozen tundra farther north. But the sea ice scenario is one that has been a hot topic recently with the potential for offshore oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic.
When the switch finally is flipped to begin the flow of fuel to Nome, it's just the beginning of another long process. The fuel transfer will take 36 hours as an optimistic estimate -- and it could be much longer, Kotula said.
And then the Healy and Renda will turn around and complete their journey again in the opposite direction, which presents a whole other set of challenges. Fortunately, according to Vitus Marine CEO Mark Smith, the currents flowing south will prove helpful on the trip back down, instead of fighting them as the ships did on the way to Nome.
"If everything else goes wrong, if we get out into the currents of the Bering Sea, in a matter of weeks we could be flushed out and down to the Pribilof (Islands)," Smith said.
But "this will probably be a 40-day-plus operation" for the crews of the Healy and Renda, who already missed their respective Christmas holidays to complete this mission, Smith said.
The Healy will return to its home port of Seattle; the Renda will return to Vladivostok, Russia. Whether it will be days or weeks before that happens remains to be seen.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com