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Ice cowboys reckon with ships stuck in stubborn Alaska ice

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published January 11, 2012

The fuel mission to Nome through frozen pack ice off of Alaska's western coast had for a second consecutive day stalled until late Wednesday night. That afternoon Renda and her ice-breaking escort, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy, remained about 100 miles south of the town they're aiming to save from a looming fuel shortage. But by midnight they'd managed to put another 30 miles behind them, pulling to within 70 miles of their destination.

Vitus Marine, the company that chartered the Renda to make the fuel delivery, said crews expected little progress during the day, as they had planned to focus more on logistics than movement, including helicoptering in a seaman who knows the ice well.

Jeffrey Garrett, a retired admiral with the U.S. Coast Guard, has commanded both the Healy and the Coast Guard's larger ice breaker, Polar Sea. He has extensive experience in Alaska, Antarctica and the Great Lakes. "We are delighted to be able to draw upon this new-found resource," said Stacey Smith, a project manager with Vitus Marine.

When Garrett arrives aboard the Renda, he'll find a crew that has also invoked heavenly help. A framed picture of an embroidered icon is stationed among the officers on the bridge, a good-will missive sent by the mother of the Russian ship's captain. She made the needlepoint symbol -- a depiction of a Russian patron saint for all mariners -- for her son to carry at sea.

The mission may require both figures to succeed.

"The ship has a mind of it's own," Capt. Peter Garay, the Alaska vessel pilot guiding the Renda in and out of Alaska's waters, said Wednesday. "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 Healy has resorted to ice-breaking techniques called the "herring bone" and "plunger" in an effort to get the Russian-flagged fuel tanker on its way. "The Herring bone cracks the ice alongside the ice-bound vessel, relieving the pressure, while the plunger draws away that broken ice so the 'stucken' vessel can pull free," Garay explained.

Optimism remained high Wednesday that the Renda would complete her journey. Everyone involved seems committed to seeing it through, no matter how long that takes. The Coast Guard has previously said as long as the ships and their crews are safe, the sojourn will continue.

Still, thick in the ice, 100 miles is a long way to go. Determination among the crew is described as abundant, and the distance gained thus far through hostile conditions has bolstered their confidance. Yet in the beginning, skepticism quietly hung over the mission like a bad shadow.

"Most of us involved gave this operation little chance of success, though most of us were reluctant to say this publicly," Carter Whalen, president of the Alaska Marine Pilots and Garay's colleague, said on Wednesday. "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 the limited communication time he has to convey how capable, confident and knowledgeable Capt. Sergey is aboard Renda. An unsung hero already."

Many people are working hard around the clock -- plotting courses, studying terrain, reading the weather, steering ships -- to keep the mission going. Whalen, monitoring the voyage from his home base in Dutch Harbor, said it seems to be working.

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

Samiy Maliy Vperiod! (Slow ahead.) Polniy Vperiod! (Full ahead.) Ostandvit Mashinu! (Stop engines.) These are the commands Garay hears ring from Renda's bridge amid minus-40 degree wind chills below clear and sunny skies.

"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," Garay said.

Whalen and others have called the expedition very "Shackleton-esque," a grand, gripping adventure that recalls the Antarctic explorer who survived being trapped by ice for months on end.

"This voyage is a modern day trip back in time," Whalen said Wednesday, reflecting on how far the ships have come and what lies ahead. "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. In a world full of bad news. In a world lacking in adventure. This is what inspires me."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)

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