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Rural Alaska

Alaska ice mission: Stop and go toward Nome

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published January 7, 2012

A fit hiker on land would outpace the progress being made by a U.S. Coast Guard ice-breaking cutter and the Arctic Russian fuel tanker it's escorting toward a western Alaska Village. Assuming, of course, that the hiker didn't have to repeatedly double back to free a stuck friend, or chop her way through massive ice blocks just to keep going.

This is the very predicament these ships and the people relying on them signed up for. Alaska's harsh weather and icy winter sea are fickle foes for the mariners who must find a way to overcome the ever-shifting path through the Bering Sea.

Early Saturday morning the Coast Guard's polar ice-breaking cutter Healy and the Russian tanker Renda were about 50 miles due west of the village of Hooper Bay. Twelve hours later they were in relatively the same location, but had crept 10 miles to the north -- a good thing.

"Progress has been slow but steady," Stacey Smith, a project manager with Vitus Marine, the company that chartered the Renda, said early Saturday night. Despite the seemingly sluggish plod toward Nome, the ships could still make it to the city late Sunday or early Monday, the same arrival time projected at the start of the journey.

One of the big challenges has been getting the ships "in step" with each other, said Captain Carter Whalen of the Alaska Marine Pilots. Whalen's colleague, Captain Peter Garay, is the only American on the Renda, the state-mandated pilot who will steer the ship in and out of Alaska's ports.

If Renda and her load of 1.3 million gallons of fuel follows too closely, she risks overrunning the Healy, which is in the lead as the primary ice-breaker. If she's too far back or the Healy is going too fast, she can get left behind, as has occurred throughout the journey. The crews are finding that about the time they get their travel rhythms figured out, Murphy's Law seems to kick in -- the sea's ice conditions change, affecting the dynamics all over again, Whalen said.

The stop-and-go travel tempo may improve once the ships begin to pass St. Lawrence Island, which Saturday evening was about 95 miles northwest of the Healy, with the fuel caravan still about 190 miles from Nome.

A "wind shadow" created by a land feature on the coastline above Nome has created a wide section of thinner ice, said Kathleen Cole, an ice scientist with the National Weather Service who is consulting on the mission.

Winds blowing from North to South across the finger created by the land surrounding Port Clarence push ice away from shore. When new ice forms, it, too, is blown south. The cycle repeats, creating a large area of thinner ice the ships will find themselves in until they get about 30 miles from Nome, when the ice will thicken again, Cole said.

The ships' crews are working long hours on the trip, and Smith imagines on board it must be "anything but dull."

"Caffeine is likely a dietary staple," she said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)

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