ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Shifting ice in the Bering Sea is dramatically slowing a Russian tanker's mission to deliver fuel to an iced-in Alaska community.
A Coast Guard spokesman said Monday that an icebreaker and a fuel tanker are encountering "some really dynamic ice" that is slowing the mission and sometimes forcing both vessels to come to a complete stop.
But, "As long as we're making progress, we're going to Nome," said Anchorage Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley.
A worst case scenario would be that the ice becomes too much for any progress. But Mosley doubts that would be the case since the Coast Guard cutter Healy has the ability to make it all the way to Nome.
Jason Evans, chairman of Sitnasuak Native Corp., the company arranging for the fuel delivery by Russian tanker, had no qualms Monday. "I think we are getting to Nome," he said, adding he will be there for the arrival.
Nome is in need of diesel and unleaded gasoline after a fall fuel delivery by barge was delayed by a storm that swept western Alaska. By the time the weather had improved, Nome was iced-in and a barge delivery was impossible.
In late November, when a plan to fly fuel into Nome was being considered, a gallon of gas was selling for $5.98, but that plan was scuttled when estimates showed it could cause a spike in prices to $9.
If the tanker mission fails, the plan to fly in fuel will have to be revived, Evans said.
The Healy, an icebreaker designed to move through ice several feet thick, is leading the 370-foot Renda, a Russian tanker loaded with 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products.
The plan was for the two ships to deliver fuel to Nome on Monday, but because of the icy conditions, that arrival date is off. Coast Guard officials are not saying when they expect the vessels to arrive, but it could be later this week.
"The dynamics of things make it a pretty intense transit," Cmdr. Greg Tlapa, the executive officer of the Healy, told The Associated Press by satellite phone Monday afternoon as the icebreaker was about 111 miles south-southwest of Nome.
He described conditions outside the Healy's bridge much like the surface of the moon: nearly 100 percent snow coverage, occasional ridging and "lots of rubble all around."
The Healy is trying to keep the Renda 0.3 mile behind the Coast Guard cutter as it breaks through 3 feet of ice. But the ice conditions are changing constantly, and when they reach heavier ice, the path is closing between the two ships.
In those cases, the Healy doubles back and cuts a release path by the Renda, then makes another pass, usually about half the distance from the relief cut.
"The relief cut relaxes the ice pressure around them, and allows them to fall in astern of us, and we pick it up from there," Tlapa said.
"That's been the dance so far," he said, calling the scale of this mission unprecedented for the Coast Guard in the Arctic.
The ships are in constant communication, with the Healy relaying over VHF radio any speed or propulsion changes and what they are seeing ahead. There's an active duty Coast Guardsman on the Healy that is fluent in Russian, Tlapa said. There's an Alaska marine pilot on board the Renda, and the vessel agent speaks English.
"It's slow and steady, but we're making good progress," Tlapa said.
When the tanker and the icebreaker are working well, they move at about 5 mph. Lt. Bernard Auth, at the District 17 command center in Juneau, said early Monday the ships were averaging less than half that speed, about 2 mph through ice.
The tanker left Russia in mid-December and picked up more than 1 million gallons of diesel fuel in South Korea. When a plan to pick up gasoline in Japan didn't work out, the ship received a waiver of federal law allowing the foreign vessel to dock in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, where it picked up 300,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline.
Nome has enough fuel for now and is not in dire need. However, if the delivery is not made the community probably will run short of certain petroleum products and could be forced to wait for a thaw to refuel.
It appears the community has enough home heating fuel, but Evans said without a delivery it is possible Nome could run out before the next barge delivery in June or early July.
Associated Press writer Mark Thiessen contributed to this report.
Healy webcam: http://icefloe.net/Aloftcon_Photos/index.php?album=2012