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Icebreakers Importance in the Arctic


The Healy, the Renda and Vitus Marine


Some may think this story started Nov. 8 last year when a winter storm churned the seas near Nome so roughly a barge was prevented from supplying final shipment of the town’s winter fuel. The storm in early November brought sea ice to Norton Sound by wind and ocean current and prevented the late delivery of 1.6 million gallons of diesel and gasoline ordered last May by Bonanza Fuel to top off the Sitnasuak Native Corp. subsidiary’s 3.6 million gallon tank farm near the Port of Nome.

The canceled delivery created a bit of a problem for the 3,600 Nome residents living in the Western Alaska coastal community on Norton Sound. There wouldn’t be enough fuel to make it through the winter.

“They had an issue where an ‘outside’ company couldn’t complete a delivery and we found a solution,” Vitus Marine co-founder Mark Smith says. “Two Alaska-based companies solved the problem—an Alaska-centric solution. It took a group of Alaskans that sat down and marshaled the resources to get the job done.”

Those resources turned out to be rather large and encompassing, with involvement among federal, state and local governmental agencies and officials, the Alaska congressional delegation, the U.S. Coast Guard, business and industry. Before delivery was finally made in mid-January, more than two months after the big November storm, the solution to the Nome fuel situation became an international collaboration.

A situation, Smith pointed out, that was a critical resupply and not an emergency. There were two options, he said: they could attempt a marine resupply or they could wait and fly it in by planeload.


This story really started in 1935 with a family tug and barge lighterage service founded by Mark Smith’s grandfather. Smith Lighterage Co. covered fuel sales and freight deliveries in Bristol Bay and grew to serve much of Western Alaska, according to Smith, who was born with a relationship to Western Alaska fuel delivery.

Eventually, the family business became part of a larger company, Northland Holdings Inc., and Northland became part of an even larger company, Australia-based Adsteam Marine Ltd. However, due to market issues Adsteam had to divest its Northland interests by 2005. In the meantime, Crowley Maritime Corp. had agreed to acquire the assets of Yukon Fuel, Yutana Barge Lines and two other Northland companies, which resulted in a lawsuit being filed by Alaska Village Electric Cooperative Inc., INN Electric Cooperative Inc., Kotzebue Electric Cooperative Inc., Naknek Electric Cooperative Inc., City of Nome d/b/a Nome Joint Utility System, Nushagak Electric and Telephone Cooperative Inc., and Unalakleet Valley Electric Cooperative. Following that lawsuit, a State of Alaska Consent to Decree requiring Crowley to divest some of its Western Alaska assets to Delta Western Inc. was issued, with the intent of creating competition.

Fast forward five years to 2009 and the creation of Vitus Marine.

“Members of the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative wanted to stabilize fuel and transportation costs,” Smith says. “AVEC financed the tugs and barges, and Vitus agreed to supply fuel and operate the vessels under charter for five years.”

Two sets of tugs and barges were built and delivered over the next two years, and in 2011, “although our vessels were late coming out of the shipyard, Vitus delivered fuel to several utilities in Western Alaska, including Kotzebue, Nome, Dillingham, Naknek,” Smith added. He was back in the fuel supply business in Western Alaska.


Smith says he heard in late November from Bonanza Fuel manager Scot Henderson that Delta Western hadn’t yet made the Nome delivery. Bottom line: Nome didn’t get their fuel. Smith said he thought of the Russian-flagged tank vessel Renda, a 370-foot, double-hulled, Russian-registered vessel with an ice classification. Smith had looked at the T/V Renda earlier in the year for possible Dutch Harbor deliveries. He knew it had recently undergone a double-hull refit, and thus could legally deliver fuel in Alaska.

He said the Renda’s owner was contacted about a Nome delivery and they said sure. The “northern router” was on the tail end of their delivery season and had been delivering fuel to the Russian Northern Coast, following Russian ice breakers through up to five feet of sea ice.

By the first week of December, Smith was working with the Alaska Native village corporation Sitnasuak Native Corp. to get a delivery to its subsidiary Bonanza Fuel.

“We were trying to do our best to lay out a contract,” he said. “The challenge was to keep the customer out of risk if the fuel didn’t arrive.”
Smith and his people at Vitus Marine got busy with the logistics of the operation and started making contact with all the parties that would be involved in what was to become the history making first commercial winter delivery of petroleum through sea ice to Nome.

“Sitnasuak and Vitus Marine inquired and appealed for support to Lt. Governor Meade Treadwell and the congressional delegation,” Smith says. “John Kotula of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and USGC Captain Jason Fosdick were instrumental in providing regulatory oversight and prevention strategies. Bob King, legislative assistant for Sen. Mark Begich provided a lot of support as did Bob Walsh from Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office.”

Sitnasuak announced the contract Dec. 5 last year for Vitus Marine LLC to deliver, via the Renda, the rest of Nome’s winter fuel, approximately1.3 million gallons.

“The Coast Guard has done an excellent job in working with us to execute an innovative and complex solution to the fuel crisis that currently faces the community of Nome,” said Sitnasuak Board Chairman Jason Evans when announcing the contract Dec. 5. “They are currently investigating the use of the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy to ensure the Russian tanker is able to make it through the ice to Nome. We really appreciate their assistance.”


The Healy happened to be on its way home from a seven-month scientific mission in the Arctic Ocean and extended its Alaska stay another month to make sure the Renda made it through the sea ice to Nome. The Seattle-based 420-foot polar icebreaker with 80 crewmembers onboard is the country’s largest, and only working, icebreaker. The Coast Guard agreed to help, with conditions: “The Healy’s participation is contingent upon the following four items: the Renda passes the Coast Guard port state control exam, there are no inordinate delays, the fuel transfer plans meet federal and state requirements and on scene weather conditions permit safe passage. If all these conditions are met the Healy will assist the Renda’s transit by breaking ice along the nearly 300 mile route from the ice edge to Nome.”

Capt. Beverly A. Havlik, Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, headed her ship and crew to Dutch Harbor in mid-December. The Renda left its homeport of Valdivostok Dec. 17 and headed to South Korea to load 1 million gallons of No. 1 Arctic grade diesel fuel for the Bonanza Fuel tank farm at the Port of Nome. The next hurdle to clear turned out to be the Jones Act due to another winter storm, this time in northern Japan, preventing the Renda from making a planned stop to load 300,000 gallons of Arctic grade unleaded gasoline after loading diesel in South Korea.


The Renda could go to Dutch Harbor for the fuel before heading north to Nome, but that would require a Jones Act waiver, which was granted Dec. 30 by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano after a positive determination by the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration.

By Jan. 2, both the Healy and Renda were in Dutch Harbor, ready to commence. The Renda, captained by Sergey Kopytov, passed Coast Guard inspections Jan. 3 and after loading ~300,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline the ships readied for the journey north to Nome and the Bering Sea winter ice pack. Coming onboard the Renda in Dutch Harbor was Michail Shestakov, Vitus Marine supply and logistics manager, who served as Russian interpreter for the Renda’s captain on the voyage to Nome.

Besides the Jones Act waiver, an amendment to Vitus Marine’s Oil Discharge Prevention and Contingency Plan was required by ADEC to “include information specific to the T/V Renda and to cover ice operations,” was also expedited. ADEC shortened the public comment period from 30 days to seven and approved the amendment Jan. 5.

There was an “alignment of interests to make a timely and safe delivery,” Smith said.

The list of stakeholders gives an indication of the sense of involvement and readiness, and included 22 agencies and offices at the federal, state, regional and local levels.

As the journey got under way, ADEC issued situation reports and the Coast Guard released video and photographs in real time of the progress of the Healy and Renda making their way across the Bering Sea to Nome—first in open water, then through more than 300 miles of the ice pack.

And the whole world tuned in.

At least, Smith says, “it is fresh new ice, not ancient ice,” making it easier for the Healy to break through and create “leads” for the Renda. Sometimes the leads quickly closed due to pressure from the wind and ocean currents, causing the Healy to have to go back to re-open a path through the ice and relieve ice pressure squeezing the Renda. And it wasn’t always a straight path—many times the Healy had to zig zag and circle around in order to for the Renda to progress.


During this time preparations in Nome included a University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute research team. Dr. Andy Mahoney took core samples to measure ice thickness and salinity near the Port of Nome. Professor Greg Walker and a support team deployed an experimental drone that provided still and video images for a mile surrounding the Nome harbor. Smith said the team helped figure out where to park the Healy and Renda, what ice preparation was needed, and provided real-time mapping of the ice around the port.

Just after midnight Jan. 13, lights from the two ships were visible from Nome, although they were still miles from shore. Once the ships made their final approach on Jan. 14, the Healy parked a mile out due to its draft, and the Renda parked closer in, but still almost 500 yards outside the Nome breakwater. After working on the final approach all day, the vessels stopped all activities and the ice was allowed to refreeze for 12 hours to stabilize the ships before beginning fuel transfer operations.

“It was the most monitored fuel transfer I’ve seen in 35 years—24/7,” Smith says. “It posed a lot of unique challenges and questions, every one of them was new and unusual. We had work crews to coordinate from the Renda, Vitus Marine, Bonanza Fuel, Port of Nome, numerous contractors, and at the same time coordinate with compliance crews from ADEC and USCG. The whole team was highly invested in not spilling a drop of fuel.”

On Jan. 15, two, 2,200-foot-long, four-inch fuel lines were attached to valves on the Renda and rolled out to the onshore marine header facilities at the port to offload the gasoline and diesel.


“It looked like they were walking on the moon,” Smith says.

Safety and environmental inspections were performed prior to commencement of fuel transfer on Jan. 16. Meanwhile, as fuel transfer operations were under way, representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard were in Nome planning the return voyage, including use of an MH-65 helicopter for ice reconnaissance.

The fuel transfer was completed Jan. 19 and the lines were pigged to remove any remaining fuel before being rolled up and returned to the Renda, a procedure that took until the next day. Preparations were made for the Healy and Renda to depart Nome.

“The town of Nome got together as a community and wanted to participate in a meaningful way,” Smith says. “They brought boxes of goodies and hand-knit hats to the Renda crew—third graders made cookies—there was even pizzas delivered.”

The Healy began breaking ice around the Renda for final departure on Jan. 20. In its final situation report issued Jan. 24, ADEC reported: “The T/V Renda and CGC Healy departed Nome on Saturday, Jan. 21. Currently, both vessels are halfway through approximately 360 to 400 miles of sea ice.”

The vessels made it through the ice and reached open water Jan. 29: the Healy headed for Seattle, the Renda for Russia. The U.S. Coast Guard Base at Pier 36 in Seattle welcomed the Coast Guard Cutter Healy’s arrival Feb. 5 after a deployment lasting 254 days at sea. The T/V Renda arrived on Feb. 10 at its homeport in Vladivostok on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East.


“Development will float all our boats,” Smith says. “Increased resource development in Western Alaska will keep our fleets busy. We can navigate the ice in winter through the Bering Straits. One little ship to Nome is small potatoes compared to what could be. Look at Russia and Norway, what ice operations means to their countries. Development of Alaska resources is needed to serve our state.”

Historical? Yes. Possible? Yes. Routine? No. Will future village deliveries be made this way?

“Not in this fashion,” Smith says. “No one would choose a winter delivery unless they were desperate. Every year has its unique challenges. Can we offer winter services to other communities? No, not until we’ve developed deepwater ports. The biggest challenge is ports. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on airports, not so much on ports. We need aids to navigation, channel dredging, accurate mapping and substantial government investment in order to develop safe places to dock ships and barges.”

As with many firsts and significant endeavors, there is an opportunity for knowledge.

“What I learned is that through cooperative effort you can do something you might not be able to imagine possible to do otherwise,” Smith said. “A lot of folks got together and made the operation happen—Vitus, Sitnasuak, the Coast Guard, crews of NOAA and National Weather Service. There was a lot of support.

“It was just about out of the box in every conceivable manner,” Smith added. “All the participants were willing to take some risks, but did not want to be wildly cavalier, that was understood. Safety and spill prevention were critically important. Truly this exercise demonstrates the results you can get when you have alignment of interests.”

This article orginally appeared in the March 2012 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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