The temperature was above freezing on Jan. 19, 2012, making it a fairly warm day in Nome, Alaska. It was also an historic day, during which the CGC Healy (WAGB 20) and the Russian tanker Renda finished supplying the isolated Arctic outpost with a million gallons of diesel fuel and 300,000 gallons of gasoline – the first-ever delivery of fuel to an Arctic Alaska settlement via sea ice.
The achievement, reminiscent of the 1925 midwinter “Serum Run” by sled dog teams across Alaska to provide Nome with diphtheria medicine, was several weeks in the making.
The trouble began in early November 2011, when one of the worst storms in Alaska’s history – a “blizzicane,” with winds gusting more than 100 miles an hour – prevented delivery of the town’s fall shipment. Nome (pop. 3,600) was suddenly at risk of running out of fuel to heat its homes and buildings, and to run its fleet of snowplows and emergency vehicles, by perhaps March or April, long before the next barge delivery would be possible.
Just as in 1925, no roads or rail lines lead to Nome, and given the amount of fuel needed, and the capacity of Nome’s tiny airport, it simply wasn’t feasible to fly the fuel in. Since no American company felt it had a ship that could make the delivery, Russia offered the Renda’s services, and a coalition of local and tribal officials accepted.
In mid-December, the 370-foot Renda departed Vladivostok, picked up a million gallons of fuel in South Korea, and then headed for the Aleutian Island port of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where it took on an additional 300,000 gallons of gasoline. Between the Renda and Nome, however, were 300 miles of solid sea ice.
The 420-foot Healy – a “medium-duty” icebreaker built in 1999 to support scientific research missions – was already seven months into a deployment, and due to return to its homeport of Seattle, where it was scheduled to undergo maintenance. Instead of spending the holidays at home with family, Capt. Beverly Havlik and the Healy’s crew of 85 headed for Dutch Harbor to clear the way for the Renda’s historic voyage.
The Healy was built to plow its way through 4.5 feet of ice at a constant speed of 3 knots, with the ability to smash through 8 feet, when necessary, by backing and ramming. Its heavy-duty counterparts, the 35-year old Polar Sea and Polar Star, are capable of handling thicker ice, but both remain out of commission – the Polar Sea permanently, and the Polar Star until 2013, when it is scheduled to complete a $60 million refit.
The Healy and Renda departed Dutch Harbor on Jan. 3, 2012, and three days later, the Healy began pushing through the ice. It was slow going, often only a few miles a day – a person walking alongside on the ice could have beaten the ships in a race – and there were
moments when the mission seemed doomed to fail. Some days saw near-record subzero temperatures, so cold the ice immediately reformed after being cleared by the Healy, barring the progress of the tanker behind it.
A week and a half after their departure, on Jan. 16, the Healy had gone as far as it could go without scraping its massive hull on the seafloor, and stopped about 500 yards from the end of Nome Harbor’s longest pier. The plan was to deliver the fuel to the dock via nearly a half-mile of hoses – but first the ships would have to wait for the ice to refreeze around them, so workers could venture out onto it. With the weather cooperating, the transfer was completed on Jan. 19. The two vessels left Nome shortly afterward, and faced more favorable conditions – sailing with the ocean current, rather than fighting it, and through thinner ice and even, in spots, open water. The Healy and the Renda would go their separate ways once they emerged from the ice.
The circumstances of the Nome mission have lent support to an idea that the Coast Guard has maintained for more than a decade now: The nation needs more icebreakers. While the Nome crisis was likely a one-off, the fact that it required the nation’s only working icebreaker to be pulled from a mission points to an embarrassingly small ice breaking capacity for one of the world’s eight Arctic nations. Finland and Sweden each have many more icebreakers than the United States; Russia has 25.
Increasing the Coast Guard’s capacity for ice breaking isn’t a matter of beating the Finns, of course; it’s a matter of capability and readiness. It may seem contradictory to claim, as people become more active throughout the Arctic maritime due to climate change, that the nation needs more icebreakers – but the Nome mission has shown that situations that might result from this activity – a fuel shortage, an oil spill, a search and rescue situation – threaten to strain the resources of the Coast Guard, which has no permanently assigned assets in the region.
The situation has many Alaska officials – including Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell – worried about the future. “We need the Healy, and we need new Polar-class icebreakers,” he said during the fuel transfer. “We need them to maintain the safety and health of Alaska’s coastal communities and environment. We need them to foster maritime commerce just like in the Great Lakes. We need them to counter risks posed by new ship traffic carrying oil products through the Bering Strait, for science, and for security requirements than cannot be met with current capabilities.”