The tanker’s arrival off Nome, scheduled for the first week of January, will be the first time fuel has been delivered to a Western Alaska town in winter.
The delivery means a lonely winter for the crew of the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, which literally had to reverse course from a trip home to Seattle. The Healy is now docked in Dutch Harbor, where it awaits the icebreaking tanker Renda, which normally delivers fuel to Russia’s Far East during winter.
“Any time you do something that’s never been done before, there’s just a thousand issues that need to be addressed,” said Jason Evans, chairman of the Sitnasuak Native Corporation board of directors.
Sitnasuak, the Native corporation of Nome, arranged for the Renda’s arrival after a series of autumn storms prevented fuel barges from reaching Nome before sea ice formed. With no resupply, Nome didn’t have enough fuel to last the winter.
“We started looking at all options, including flying fuel,” Evans said. “We were looking at other options, including the Healy hauling it in.”
That option didn’t pan out — the Healy has a draft too deep to get within a mile of Nome’s shore, and it isn’t designed to haul fuel beyond what the ship itself needs.
The Coast Guard’s two other seagoing icebreakers, the Polar Sea and Polar Star, are stuck in Seattle, awaiting repairs Congress has not funded.
America’s civilian icebreakers are in the Great Lakes, while the few ice-capable tugboats in Alaska are dedicated to places like Cook Inlet and are not available for missions outside their regions.
As Sitnasuak searched for options, it was approached by fuel hauler Vitus Marine, which proposed bringing in the Renda.
The two companies reached an agreement in the first week of December. At the time, the Healy was scheduled to return to Seattle in time for Christmas.
Early this week, the Coast Guard announced the Healy will remain in Dutch Harbor until the Renda arrives, then escort it. The Healy’s presence is not necessary. It and the Renda can each break through ice about 5 feet thick, and the Renda will still have to move on its own once it reaches water too shallow for the Healy.
Petty officer 1st Class Sara Francis, a Coast Guard spokeswoman in Alaska, said the Healy is involved “because the citizens of Nome and the folks who run the government there as well as the state of Alaska asked for our assistance.”
Evans said Sitnasuak asked if the Healy could stay in the area, and having the ship escort the Renda adds a bit of insurance to a unique voyage.
“I think, although we are confident in the Russian ship, it’s still fairly unknown to us,” he said.
It’s unknown to the Coast Guard, as well.
At a stop in Dutch Harbor at the end of the year, the Coast Guard will inspect the Renda to certify it safe for American waters. Also in Dutch Harbor, the Renda will load gasoline for shipment to Nome.
Loading the gasoline will require a waiver of the Jones Act, which forbids foreign-flagged ships from transporting goods from one American port to another American port. Without the waiver, Nome won’t get its gasoline — one of the key reasons behind the Renda’s visit.
If the waiver comes through, the Renda is expected to be at the edge of the ice, 300 miles offshore, about Jan. 1. From there, it’s a three- or four-day trip to Nome for the Renda, which will follow the Healy.
“The timeline is a little fluid in terms of hours, but in terms of days, it’s fairly consistent,” Evans said.
Overhead, a C-130 from Air Station Kodiak will make scouting missions to check on ice conditions and direct the ships around pressure ridges, large piles of ice too thick to plow through. One scouting mission was in the air Thursday, Francis said, and another is likely just before the ships enter the ice.
“It’s just a tremendous amount of people it takes to get any large fuel shipments, especially one that comes through the ice,” Evans said. “I’ve always had appreciation for the Coast Guard, but working hand in hand with them on this has given me an eye-opening appreciation.”
Contact Mirror editor James Brooks at email@example.com.