Alaska pilot, 'Jordan of ice' spearhead winter fuel delivery to Nome

The unlikely partnership of a Russian cargo tanker and U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker made headlines and history in January by traversing the frozen Bering Sea to deliver 1.3 million gallons of fuel to Nome, Alaska. The crews prevailed over engine trouble, language problems, ice more than six feet thick and temperatures in the minus double digits to make the first winter delivery by ship to the city of 3,600.

"People were surprised and pleased when we arrived in Nome," said Capt. Peter Garay of the Alaska Marine Pilots. "This was the first time the Coast Guard has done something like this, and I really believe this was history being made." Hired as the compulsory pilot aboard the tanker Renda for the final three miles of the voyage, Garay served as de facto navigator and communications consultant for the first 300 miles.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy breaks ice for the Russian-flagged tanker Renda, foreground, in the Bering Sea about 250 miles south of Nome. The vessels ultimately would succeed in reaching the Alaskan city to complete its first-ever winter fuel delivery by sea. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Alaska fuel-transporters Vitus Marine chartered the 370-foot Renda in December after shipping delays and storms prevented a scheduled fall shipment of 1.6 million gallons of fuel from reaching Nome before the Bering Sea iced over. The expense of flying in the fuel would have added significantly to the $6-per-gallon cost already paid by residents. No U.S.-registered ships capable of making the winter delivery were available.

The ice-classed tanker took on fuel in South Korea before sailing to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where Garay boarded, and where the vessel was joined by Healy, the Coast Guard's largest icebreaker. Built primarily for research activities in 1997, the 30,000-hp cutter carries a crew of 75 and as many as 50 scientists, and is capable of breaking four-and-a-half feet of ice continuously at 3 knots.

Together the ships set off for Nome, 300 miles away. Two days out of Dutch Harbor, they reached the ice edge about halfway between the islands of St. Paul, in the Pribilof chain, and St. Matthew. Within 15 minutes, they were stuck.

"There's no amount of maritime academy that could prepare a person for what I experienced," said Garay, who has worked in Alaska for 20 years. "The Russian captain, Sergey Kopytov, was just a kid, 30, but he was like the Michael Jordan of ice. He got ice — he read it, he understood it, he knew its mechanics."

Healy's captain, Beverly Havlik, was similarly qualified, he said, but their collective experience didn't prepare them for the challenge of working together. "The learning curve almost torpedoed the entire mission," Garay said. Escorting a ship adds a layer of difficulty to icebreaking, which is tricky work to begin with — combined with the fact that the two vessels' crews spoke different languages, it quickly became clear they had their work cut out for them.

{C}Capt. Peter Garay, left, of the Alaska Marine Pilots, with Capt. Sergey Kopytov, master of the ice-classed tanker Renda, during the historic voyage to Nome. (Photo courtesy Capt. Peter Garay)

As Healy would break a path through the ice, the channel it cleared would close quickly, forcing Renda to follow astern and maintain a proximity sometimes as little as 50 feet. If the cutter stopped suddenly in the ice, the tanker risked rear-ending it. Though there was a translator aboard Renda, Garay quickly realized that literal translation was not sufficient to discuss the complexities of the situation. He found himself interpreting the translator for the ongoing conversation between bridges.

Different areas and types of ice behave differently depending on the conditions, Garay said. For example, a tidal drop of just a few feet can cause the ice to compress when spread out over several hundred square miles of ocean, crushing anything caught in it. Wind can also affect compression, forcing the ships to constantly assess their approach.

"We were constantly discussing where to cut a relief track, how to cut it, and when we'd get stuck, there'd be long conversations about how to get unstuck," he said. "We'd be going along, and we'd get in tight ice, like two big brake pads to stop us. The Renda would groan and moan and make all kinds of noises, and the ice would close up in the Healy's path in front of us, 10 feet tall. About halfway through, some of the personalities started to work better together, and we developed a routine, a rhythm."

"It's incredible how much the ice changes, even just in a short distance," Garay said, describing the ice is as "alive."

At times, he and Capt. Havlik discussed terminating the mission when a new challenge seemed insurmountable, but even that posed problems. "If the ship got stuck for the winter, what would we do, where would we leave it?" he said. "It's different if it's without the product — then it's just a steel bobber. But if it's full of petroleum, it's a ticking time bomb."

Despite the stress and urgency of the mission, progress was slow. At times, the ships made just a knot or two, with long hours at a standstill, leaving the crews with little to distract them. Garay ate bread and borscht for nearly every meal with the crew of the tanker.

"Russian ships are hard ships to be on," he said. "There's no creature comforts."

Renda reached Nome on Jan. 14, 10 days after it left Dutch Harbor and a week later than expected. The last eight miles were among the most difficult — Garay described the ice pack as "a concrete city." Because of the tanker's size and the ice conditions, they couldn't reach the harbor.

"We drove into the shore-fast ice, and within three hours, froze solid," he said. "They brought out cargo hoses maybe three-to-four cables' distance (about 2,100-to-2,900 feet). What was expected to be a two-day discharge of fuel turned into a week-long discharge."

The National Guard made Sno-Cats available to transport Healy's crew to shore, where the residents of Nome gave them a hero's welcome. Though Renda's crew deserved equal credit, Garay said, immigration law prohibited them from going ashore.

Vitus Marine Chief Executive Mark Smith said the mission's logistics could not have been overcome without interagency cooperation, including the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Maritime Administration, which secured a Jones Act waiver to provide for delivery by the foreign-flagged vessel. The state and federal governments, University of Alaska and U.S. Navy provided support.

"This was a team effort of different agencies that often find themselves in opposition," Garay said. "This was one of the most difficult piloting tasks I've ever had. I guess we gave it our best. One thing someone said, our most valuable commodity was patience — that, and a good sense of humor."

By Professional Mariner Staff