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.
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