By Naomi Klouda
As the pilot of a Russian tanker on a near impossible mission to deliver fuel last winter to Nome, Capt. Peter Garay had his work cut out for him.
Except for a translator, the crew, all Russian, didn’t speak English. Cultural divides and different ideas on what constituted proper ship protocol separated them. Then, there was the matter of breaking through hundreds of miles of shore-fast ice.
“We also had weeks of planning sessions between private agencies, the Obama administration, the Coast Guard,” Garay said. “When it was finished, it wasn’t just a rescue mission getting fuel to Nome. It was a demonstration of the Coast Guard’s ability.”
As America works on logistics for protecting its claims around a rapidly melting polar ice cap, the January 2012 journey bringing 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products to Nome was setting history. The exercise command structure created in the effort will guide parties in the years ahead as they plan for work in a changing Arctic. Even President Obama listened in on the discussion and appraisal of Nome’s situation.
For his part, Garay will be honored noon Thursday by Sen. Tom Wagoner and Rep. Paul Seaton at the Homer Senior Center. A legislative citation sponsored by Wagoner lauds Garay for his leadership role in the endeavor. Garay works for the Alaska Marine Pilots Association in western Alaska District 3, a collection of independent operators licensed by the state to perform state pilot services.
The mission was undertaken because Nome was in dire need of diesel and unleaded gasoline after a autumn fuel delivery by barge was delayed by a storm that swept Western Alaska. By the time the weather improved, Nome was iced in and a barge delivery was impossible. In late November, a plan to fly fuel into Nome was being considered but proved unaffordable for the community.
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, an icebreaker designed to move through ice several feet thick, led the 370-foot Russian vessel Renda in a carefully concerted effort that at times resembled a dance, Garay said.
Sergey Kyptov, the Russian Renda captain, and Garay formed a partnership that benefited from Russia’s more substantial experience of breaking through ice.
“That’s where we (Americans) are sadly lacking. We don’t have a lot of experience in ice breaking and it raised the issue of having equipment that works,” Garay said. “I didn’t know how it would turn out. I would start out the day feeling like we were doing the impossible. I would tell myself I am required to be the best I can could.”
The 10-day run from Dutch Harbor to Nome was almost aborted early on when the Renda’s engine blew a valve. The ship tossed in 40-50 foot seas and the Russian ship captain wanted to shut the ship down to make the repairs right there. Garay, possessing 22 years experience piloting for Western Alaska, knew that wasn’t a bright idea – shutting down in massive swells.
“Time is money, to the industry way of thinking. It was thought we could save time by doing it right there,” Garay said. Instead, they tucked away in a bay near Unalaska and set anchor while the Russian ship engineer forged a new valve on the spot, showing impressive innovation.
They continued toward Nome through the Bering Sea and encountered the pack ice more than 200 miles from their destination. They could move only 20-30 miles per day. The Healy, moving ahead, carved a waterway through the ice while the challenge on the Renda was to match speeds enough to not fall behind.
“The ice acted like two big break pads squeezing on the ship, and the noise it could make was like toms on a drum. It could close off the route,” Garay said.
Aboard the ship, the language and cultural barriers had the potential to heighten confusion or cause misunderstandings. The cooks aboard the Renda were women. At some point, one of the cooks entered the bridge to offer donuts and “the captain nearly tore her head off. The thought is that no woman should enter the ship’s bridge,” Garay said.
In another instance, the Healy ship was captained by Coast Guard Capt. Beverly Havelock, who gave leadership direction to the Renda. With the language barriers went trust issues that could only be overcome as they developed a working relationship. The ship itself also raised issues.
“The tanker did not perform as advertised. It was underpowered. Everyone had expectations the ship could go through thicker ice without the assistance of the Healy,” Garay said. “The ship had to be in the shadow or wake of the Healy at all times.”
The Renda is an ice-strengthened tanker that serves the Siberian arctic in the summer and shoulder seasons. It carries fuel to different villages and ports and during winter conditions, worked with the aid of a Russian icebreaker. It was hired by Vitrus Marine for the Alaska job.
The Renda was continually having to operate in the ‘critical range,’ which stressed the engine and caused turbulence. “We were continually adjusting to figure out how to keep the engine operating above or below the critical range to minimize how long we had to transition between the RPMs (revolutions per minute.),” he said.
“There was a lot of conflict. At its worst, one of the Russians pointed out patience was our most valuable asset. And that was true – being patient as we identified what the issue was, then figuring out how to mitigate the problem. And we were successful.”
Once they made it to Nome, hoses were attached to the ship to offload the fuel. The piping was two cable lengths, or 1,200 feet from the harbor entrance to the port. The Healy stood by throughout the offloading operation, which lasted seven days. Ice experts drilled and monitored ice to make sure it was stable during the process. Temperatures were so cold, the Renda froze in place in the Nome harbor within eight hours of arriving.
Garay was able to fly from Nome back to Homer, where he lives, while the Coast Guard supplied a pilot to lead the Renda back out, an easier journey than the one in.
Now Garay serves on 20-person Alaska Arctic Policy Commission, which will conduct its first meeting next year. The commission includes three state representatives and three senators as well as conservationists and industry representatives. In 2013 they will be formulating a policy that can be implemented in 2014.
“Benefiting Alaska and protecting arctic waters is absolutely important,” he said. The experience of going where no one had gone before, so to speak, helps fill in knowledge gaps for winter work in the arctic. It will also help as Congress considers a Law of the Sea Treaty to protect American sovereignty in the Alaska arctic.
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