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Russian ship heads to Nome

Posted: December 28, 2011 - 1:01am

ANCHORAGE — A Russian tanker slowed by ocean currents kept to its mission Tuesday of delivering petroleum products to an iced-in Alaska city, even as international red tape thwarted the journey.

The 370-foot tanker Renda was in the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday morning was about 740 nautical miles west-southwest of Attu in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. It was encountering currents that had slowed its speed to about 10 mph, the Coast Guard said.

If everything goes as planned, the tanker could arrive in Nome by the second week in January.

If recent history means anything, that is unlikely.

So far, the laws of four nations have had to be considered — Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States.

Before the tanker can dock at the Dutch Harbor fishing port in the Aleutians to load gasoline, it will need to pass an inspection to operate in U.S. waters. Then it will need a waiver of federal law to load the gasoline and bring it to Nome — that is if it can go through 300 miles of sea ice around the city of about 3,500 people.

“It is challenging,” said Coast Guard spokesman Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow.

Nome normally gets fuel by barge, but a huge storm this fall prevented the last delivery before winter. Now the plan is to have the Russian tanker deliver 1.5 million gallons of petroleum products.

The tanker left Russia in mid-December and headed to South Korea where it took on over 1 million gallons of diesel fuel. From there, it was to go to Japan and load 400,000 gallons of gasoline, but international shipping regulations and fierce weather scuttled that plan.

The tanker was in the Sea of Japan when the ship was informed it was too small to pull up to the refinery dock. The idea was to have another ship transfer the fuel to the tanker when a storm blew that plan away.

A decision was made to head to Alaska and load gasoline at Dutch Harbor. It then will take another 4 to 5 days to reach Nome in what officials say would be the first winter delivery of fuel products by sea to a western Alaska community.

The tanker, however, must first get through hundreds of miles of sea ice. That is where the Healy comes in, the Coast Guard’s only functioning ice breaker. The Healy is going to break ice for the Russian tanker.

“We understand the Healy is a profoundly capable ice breaker,” said Mark Smith, CEO of Vitus Marine, the fuel supplier. “There is absolutely no question it is absolutely suitable for the mission.”

The Healy was due back to its homeport in Seattle just before Christmas, but the Coast Guard extended its mission by a month to assist the fuel effort.

Smith said the Renda is an ice class vessel that has spent its career following Russian ice breakers that go across the northern route. It often makes deliveries resupplying vessels and communities without assistance, he said.

The depth of the water will prevent the Healy from getting any closer than about one mile from the port of Nome, Wadlow said. The tanker is equipped with a long hose for off-shore delivery, but that plan comes with a host of safety concerns, he said.

“It would be extremely unfortunate if there was an accident — a spill on the ice,” Wadlow said.

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