For the fuel convoy braving the ice-choked waters of the Bering Sea, progress is progress. But when distances covered the last two days have measured 27 and 16 nautical miles respectively, surging forward nearly 30 nautical miles in just four hours Monday afternoon must have felt like riding a speedboat for the ship crews carving through ice enroute to Nome.
The Russian-American journey is like an exercise in Olympic synchronized swimming: a powerful, ice-classed tank vessel and her Coast Guard polar ice-breaking partner are learning to move together in precise, yet evolving, rhythm. Get out of sync and the movements, while independently powerful, don't mesh. Complicating matters is a Bering Sea pack ice with a frustrating knack for quickly closing up the Healy's freshly cut channels.
As for worries that the ice might be too much for the ships to handle, forcing suspension of the mission, the Coast Guard isn't hinting at defeat.
"Healy has the capability to make it all the way to Nome. It may take longer than anticipated, but we are making progress," David Mosely, a public affairs specialist with the agency, said Monday. "You never know what the ice is going to do and we just have to take it day by day."
By Monday evening, the fuel tanker Renda and the U.S. Coast Guard's ice-breaking cutter Healy had broken their way through ice hour after hour for days on end.
So far, the caravan has dealt with thick, compact ice 2 1/2-to-3 1/2-feet thick, said Kathleen Cole, an ice expert with the National Weather Service in Anchorage.
But good news is ahead. The ships are moving into an area with thinner, more broken ice, which should be easier to transit. It's hoped the "brake pad effect" that caused ice to repeatedly close in on the Renda and pinch her movement will lessen.
"Thicker ice and bigger floes mean that you are going to have more of that return force," Cole said. Smaller floes have wiggle room, in theory more places to go than just bouncing back into the tracks when the ships punch through.
By 6 p.m. Monday, Healy had managed to put more than 50 miles behind her since midnight, and this after taking a long overnight rest until about 8 a.m. In so doing they crossed a second benchmark – less than 100 nautical miles remain before the ships reach Nome.
"We crossed the mark! Renda and Healy have finally got it together. They seem to be progressing fairly well," said Capt. Peter Garay in a phone call from the Renda Monday night.
Garay is the Alaska Marine Pilot stationed on board the Russian-flagged vessel to direct it in and out of Alaska ports, and he's pleased to have things moving better. "Optimism is running high, everybody is working well together and Mother Nature is cooperating for a change," he said, explaining it's a nice change from the first 100 miles in which the crews and ships had to "crawl-claw" to get through.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com