Guest Author - Dawn Engler
Nome, Alaska usually gets a delivery of fuel by tanker, in the spring and fall each year. In 2011, the normal delivery missed its window to get fuel into Nome, and then there was a storm. Once the storm hit, the Sound was wintered in. Many different options were explored including flying in the necessary fuel, but it was cost prohibitive. It was determined that Nome did not have enough to last through to the next delivery in the spring, so a Russian fuel tanker called the Renda made the trip. This was a special type of tanker that is meant to handle cutting ice but not the thickness of the ice in the Bering Sea and into Norton Sound. So it would have an escort by the United States Coast Guard cutter Healy.
The Renda made way from Russia, in mid-December, picked up diesel in South Korea, attempted to pick up gasoline from Japan, but was turned away. Getting the permit needed allowing a foreign vessel to dock in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, the Renda was able to load up on gasoline. One more permit was needed to traverse the waters where a threatened Spectacled Eider duck, spends its winters and the Renda was on its way. Only to be turned back for a repair on an engine part not a few hours after it left port in Dutch Harbor. Seems almost like a doomed project, doesn’t it? Two hours later and the Renda and the Healy headed for the icy waters from Dutch Harbor on January 4.
The vessels had help from all around. An expert in Anchorage followed progress and kept the vessels advised of the ice thickness from satellite reports. This helped them weave their way through the channels that the constantly moving ice creates. They were stopped dead at one point a little over 100 miles away from Nome and the Coast Guard Cutter had to cut paths in the ice around the Renda so that she could continue. When they were making great movement, they topped out at about five miles per hour! Another agency helped, again with satellite images, as to the location of the endangered ducks. This information was needed again when the ships clear the ice and the Renda cut off to head home to Russia. January 13, 2012, both vessels could be seen from the shore of Nome, where residents braved the -50 degree weather to get a look. The Renda got within a half mile of the dock in Nome, and then waited for the ice to freeze it into place to make the fuel transfer. Hose was laid out across the ice, containment measures for spills taken, and the transfer began. The crews had to walk the distance of the half mile hose back and forth to ensure the transfer was going smoothly. Thursday January 19, history was made and the transfer of fuel was complete.
There are many opinions on the value of this event. In one corner, how much was spent to make this happen? In another, were the residents of Nome really in dire need of fuel? Another, why didn't the normal delivery get out in time? It had been ordered on schedule and should have been delivered before the storm hit. Should that company bear some of the load of costs? There are more corners and I'm sure the boxing will continue for a bit. One thing is for sure; supplies can be moved through the icy waters off Alaska's shores if needed, as this historical event has proved.