ANCHORAGE — A tanker on a mission to deliver fuel to an iced-in Alaska community has been deterred by a storm, told it was too puny to dock in Japan, and been required to navigate the regulations of four countries since leaving Russia in mid-December.
This week, it hit another snag: The tanker had to return to port in the Aleutian Islands because of a bad valve.
And there’s still another big challenge ahead. The tanker and the Coast Guard’s only functioning icebreaker — a ship capable of breaking through ice — must get through more than 300 miles of sea ice to reach their destination.
Their destination is Nome, a community of about 3,500 people awaiting the fuel delivery.
The city had arranged to have fuel delivered by barge in the fall but a storm of historic proportions that blew into western Alaska delayed the delivery. By the time the weather had calmed, Nome was iced-in.
Without the delivery, Nome will run short of some types of fuel before the end of winter.
The maintenance alarm sounded Wednesday evening aboard the 370-foot tanker, called the Renda. The tanker returned to the fishing port of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands in far southwest Alaska to have the valve replaced.
The tanker had stopped in Dutch Harbor to pick up about 300,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline — all that was available in the fishing port — after a plan to pick up fuel in Japan didn’t work out. The Renda also is carrying more than 1 million gallons of diesel fuel loaded in South Korea.
The work to replace the valve took about two hours and then the Renda was back on its way to rejoin the icebreaker waiting about 10 to 15 miles offshore. The Healy is the Coast Guard’s only functioning icebreaker and is capable of traveling through ice-choked and ice-covered waters. The ship will break ice for the tanker once it gets closer to Nome.
The tanker was back on its way to Nome by 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, said Mark Smith, CEO with Vitus Marine LLC, the fuel supplier. He said the tanker is carrying between 1.3 million and 1.4 million gallons of fuel, which is close to what was expected to have been delivered to Nome in the fall.
The Renda was about 100 miles north of Dutch Harbor on Thursday morning and headed to the ice edge where the Healy will take the lead, Smith said. The sea ice near the edge is mostly snow and slush but gets more compacted closer to Nome, where large sections are frozen together.
The Healy will take the lead when the ships encounter the ice.
“This is truly being looked at as a mission,” Smith said.
Smith said there are ice experts in Nome trying to get a better understanding of ice conditions near the port. The solidity and thickness of the ice will determine if the tanker will be able to get inside Nome’s breakwater or will be forced to offload the fuels from sea using a long hose.
Smith said the big question is what speed the cutter and tanker will be able to maintain while traveling through the ice. The tanker could reach Nome late Sunday or early Monday, he said.