First mate Robbie Westby was at the controls of the ATB Naniq as it approached two oil tankers lying alongside each other several miles off Nome, Alaska.
The 76-foot tug in the notch of its 183-foot barge was there as the spill response vessel, ready to go into action in the event of a mishap as the bigger tanker, Antwerp, transferred oil to the smaller one, Harbour Kristin. Once the transfer was completed, the ATB would try to come alongside Antwerp and take on a load of diesel fuel that Naniq was scheduled to deliver to Unalakleet, a small remote village at the head of Norton Sound, about 125 miles away.
On this clear Sunday morning in late June, the winds were out of the west-northwest at about 20 knots with seas of 3 to 4 feet. The two ships — Antwerp at 477 feet in length and Harbour Kristin at 382 feet — were comfortably riding the modest swells in tandem. But for the ATB, the conditions were borderline for coming alongside safely.
The weather in the area had been uncharacteristically mild in recent days, with light winds and calm seas. “I think our nice days are about to go away,” Westby said to tankerman/PIC Erik Gilliland. When it came time to go alongside Antwerp, Gilliland would be on the barge, securing the lines and connecting the cargo hose.
At 0830, the two tankers separated, and 10 minutes later Westby radioed that Naniq was beginning its approach. The pitching of the tug was severe enough for a drawer in the chart table to slide open. As the space between the ship and the ATB narrowed, the waves running between the vessels made the ship’s large fenders surge up and down.
“This seriously looks like we’ll start snapping lines,” Westby said over the radio to Gilliland, who was now on the bow of the barge. “That sounds like a good call,” Gilliland replied, as Westby maneuvered the ATB safely away.
Naniq, which is operated by Anchorage-based Vitus Marine, was specifically designed for an unusual and demanding trade: supplying fuel for power plants in the villages of western Alaska along the Bering Sea. Typically these are indigenous Alaskan communities located on shallow rivers or bays. All the fuel they require has to be delivered after the ice goes out in the spring and before it returns in the fall.
Naniq and a sister vessel, Cavek, along with their barges, were designed by Jensen Maritime, the Seattle-based naval architectural firm. Cavek was delivered in July 2011 and Naniq in September that same year. Their first full season of operations in western Alaska was in 2012.
Capt. Aaron Dykstra has been master of the ATB since Vitus took delivery in 2011.
Shallow draft was a key element in their design. Naniq’s barge draws about 6 feet when loaded and the tug draws about the same, according to Westby. “Most of the time, when we can’t get in someplace, it’s because of the tug,” he said.
To minimize draft, the tug has three 40-inch propellers operating in tunnels and fitted with Rice nozzles. The boat is propelled by three 600-hp Caterpillar C18 diesels, giving a service speed of about 10 knots. For optimal maneuverability, the tug has three triple-vane rudders. The design allows the tug to reliably serve communities other boats could not easily reach.
The single-skin barges of the two ATBs were given a waiver from the double-hull rule because of the special nature of the area in which they operate, according to Capt. Aaron Dykstra, who has been master of Naniq since it entered service. A double hull would increase the draft, he explained.
“These places are so shallow” a double-hull barge “makes it impractical to serve these villages,” Dykstra said.
Naniq’s barge, which carries deck cargo in addition to petroleum in its eight tanks, is equipped with a bow ramp. When the ATB comes to a village without elaborate docking facilities, it can simply run the barge bow onto the beach and load or unload deck cargo via the ramp.
In addition to the shallow draft, the other defining fact for the Vitus operation is the length of time the ATB crews must be away from home and family — long even by mariner standards.
They begin working in mid-April and continue until ice-up, generally in mid-October, but their season can extend into November. Crewmembers are entitled to two weeks of vacation, but some choose to work straight through.
To mitigate this schedule, Vitus has done what it can to make the boat a comfortable home away from home.
Each crewmember has his own cabin. The full galley has all the features of a well-equipped domestic kitchen. In addition to a nicely appointed mess area, there is a separate TV/movie viewing room. Throughout the interior, from galley to pilothouse, oak woodwork and cabinets suggest a condominium rather than an industrial workspace.
Naniq’s crewmembers uniformly praise what the company has done to enhance their well-being.
“This is a good outfit here. I can’t emphasize that enough,” said Mark “Smitty” Smith, the chief engineer in his first season aboard Naniq. “You know what they call this in the fleet? The Cadillac … you can live on this boat for six months.”
Clayton Christie, a tankerman in his first season, agreed. “It doesn’t get any better than this. This is the best boat in whole western Alaska.”
The quality of the food, always a big issue for most mariners, becomes especially important on very long voyages. Vitus does not cut corners here. The vessel has two large refrigerator/freezers, two additional freezers and two pantries. All of this storage space is crammed with a large variety of foods, fresh and frozen. Little expense seems to have been spared.
“They let you buy good food,” Smith said.
The ATB approaches the tanker Antwerp off Nome to take on a load of diesel fuel. On this day, conditions were too rough and Naniq’s crew were forced to wait for more favorable wind and seas before coming alongside.
The crew take advantage of that fact as they take turns preparing each day’s main meal. The results can be extraordinary. One evening while Naniq was docked in Nome, Dykstra prepared a meal that consisted of fresh salmon charcoal-grilled on a cedar plank; green salad with walnuts; sautéed onions, peppers and squash; reindeer sausage and shrimp with rice noodles.
After the meal, Westby observed, “This is the best restaurant in town.”
Following the aborted rendezvous with Antwerp, Naniq spent Sunday night anchored off Nome in relatively calm waters. By morning the winds had shifted a bit to the west and were blowing at 15 to 20 knots.
At about noon, the ATB headed out to sea to try once more to link up with Antwerp. However, conditions had not improved. “This doesn’t feel smaller yet,” Westby said of the wave heights. “I’d say 3 to 5 feet.”
There was little Naniq could do other than make long, slow turns in the vicinity of the tanker while hoping for calmer seas.
There was still one bright spot in the picture. Dykstra wanted to arrive in Unalakleet when the tidal cycle was at its highest. “We still have our tides for this place,” he said, explaining that the ATB had three or four days to go before tide heights would become a concern.
After about six hours of circling, Dykstra gave up on the rendezvous and turned the ATB back to Nome.
Tuesday morning, the crew was ready for a third try. The ATB was off the dock just before 0800. The winds, still out of the west, were a bit lower, at 10 to 15 knots, and the seas were more moderate — but still high enough to leave an element of uncertainty.
“It’s nicer, so we’ll go look for ourselves,” Dykstra said, adding, “There’s still a pretty good swell.”
At about 0900, Dykstra radioed Antwerp that the ATB was making its approach. This time there were no problems. Dykstra maneuvered the tug and barge alongside and within a few minutes the lines were secured.
Mark “Smitty” Smith, the chief engineer, with one of Naniq’s three 600-hp Caterpillar C18 diesels. Smith appreciates the tug for its crew comforts that help mitigate the rigors of long periods away from home.
By 1020 a cargo hose lowered from Antwerp was on the deck of the barge. Following an air test of the hose, Gilliland announced over the radio at 1106, “We are open and ready to receive.”
Diesel began flowing, slowly at first, from the tanker to the barge. Dykstra explained that moving the fuel slowly minimized the friction of liquid sloshing about in an empty tank. “Static is a killer,” he said. “We go slow in the beginning.”
On this day, the ATB would take on 238,000 gallons, all of it for Unalakleet. By 1507, Gilliland confirmed that the hose had been disconnected.
Minutes later, the ATB was moving away. Westby set a course of 102 degrees, and Naniq headed diagonally across Norton Sound on a transit that would bring the laden ATB to its destination at about 0700 on Wednesday, in time for the high tide just after 1000.
“That gives us plenty of time,” Dykstra said.
There is another sense in which Dykstra and his crew had plenty of time. In late June, after two months on the boat, they still had at least four more months left in the season.
Dykstra, 36, is married with two children — a boy who is 4 years old and a daughter who is 3. This is his third full season aboard Naniq.
“Seven months, that’s how long it’s been the last two seasons,” he said. “There’s no good way to do it. You just grin and bear it.” As for his wife, he said, “She hates it.”
While the schedule may be marathon-like, this job fits Dykstra’s professional situation very well. Before coming to Vitus, he had a substantial amount of experience working on tugs operating in western Alaska. “We knew our way in and out of a lot of little villages up here,” he said.
In an area where charts are unreliable, the experience is invaluable. “There is so little charted information,” he observed. “Who knows how old these soundings are? Some of them may be 200 years old.”
While the hardship of the schedule is inherent, the crew makes the best of it. “The company leaves us alone, lets us explore so we don’t get burned out,” said Westby, 33, who is in his second season.
Upon landing at Unalakleet, tankerman/PIC Erik Gilliland adjusts the cargo hose in preparation for discharging diesel fuel. The unloading operation requires the crew to run the barge’s bow up onto the river bank and bring the vessel to rest on the river bottom as the tide goes out.
In his time ashore, he likes to search for derelict cars that might supply parts he needs to restore a 1970 Ford Bronco Sport at home in Graham, Wash. “I just want to make it comfortable enough to drive around,” he said. “Take it to the lake and stuff like that.”
One evening while the ATB was docked in Nome, Westby, with the help of two crewmates, had wrestled two old car doors from the dock onto the deck of the barge.
Even though Naniq’s season is by most measures extremely long, the ATB’s crew is nevertheless in a race against time.
“We have a known quantity of gallons we’ve committed to deliver,” Dykstra explained. “If we don’t make them by barge — far and away the most cost-effective method — we still have to get them the fuel.”
“Last year we had all kinds of delays,” he said. “The only way we made all of our deliveries was because it was a late freeze-up. This year we’re pretty much on schedule. We’re doing good.”
By 0800 on Wednesday the ATB was anchored off Unalakleet, a fishing village with a population of less than 800. Dykstra’s first order of business was to take Naniq’s 18-foot skiff for a quick look at the winding tidal river the ATB would have to ascend.
“It looks fine,” he reported on his return. At 0915 Gilliland radioed to Dykstra that the anchor was up. He also asked Dykstra, “Do you want me to drop the drawbridge?” In other words, should he lower the bow ramp so it would not impair Dysktra’s view ahead.
The answer was no; that would not be necessary because now Westby was in the skiff, riding ahead of the ATB guiding Dykstra via the radio.
At 0934, the ATB was past the bar near the mouth of the river. “Now it’s deep again,” Dykstra said, then correcting himself, “deeper.”
Naniq crosses Norton Sound, an arm of the Bering Sea, during the 125-mile voyage from Nome to Unalakleet. The ATB was carrying 238,000 gallons of diesel, representing the entire annual fuel requirement of Unalakleet’s electric power plant.
With about 3.5 feet of water under the boat, the ATB was headed upriver about a mile to the power plant’s marine header, where incoming fuel is received. Dykstra was planning on running the barge’s bow up on the bank, lowering the ramp and allowing Naniq to ground as the tide went out.
To swing the ATB, Dykstra might need to use the skiff as a kind of bow thruster for the barge, so Dykstra instructed Westby to position the skiff off the starboard bow of the barge.
At 1003, the ATB came to rest on the bank. “So here we are,” Dykstra said. “This is a piece of cake. I’d have been a lot more nervous if the skiff had not been out in front of us.”
Waiting to greet the boat was Reese Huhta, general manager of the power plant. The village, he said, gets a quarter of its electrical power from a wind farm, but four diesel-fired generators provide the rest.
That meant Naniq and its crew had just arrived with 75 percent of the town’s annual energy supply.
“We’re happy to have them here,” Huhta said.