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And I'm Melissa Block.
A Russian tanker carrying more than a million gallons of precious fuel is slowly making its way toward Nome, Alaska. If it makes it, it will be a first. That's because the Bering Sea is frozen solid this time of year. Nome is not accessible by road. The city's winter fuel supply is usually delivered by sea in the fall. But a monster storm and shipping delays kept that fuel from arriving. And the city has been iced in ever since. So the tanker, the Renda, is now attempting to make a first ever winter fuel delivery to Alaska's western coast with a Coast Guard icebreaker, the Healy, leading the way.
And we're joined now by the captain of the Healy, Captain Beverly Havlik. Welcome to the program.
CAPTAIN BEVERLY HAVLIK: Hey. Thank you very much.
BLOCK: And why don't you tell us what you see as you look forward as you head through the Bering Sea right now?
HAVLIK: Well, we see a great deal more ice. The ice is a pretty dynamic force. It moves constantly. There's always forces from the outside against the ice edge. Plates will move and then press against Renda. We have the horsepower to power through and come back and make a relief path alongside the ship and release the pressure. So we get back into the track that we've just made, and they could follow along behind us again.
BLOCK: How thick - Captain Havlik, how thick is the ice that you're trying to break through?
HAVLIK: This ice where we've been operating in the last 24 hours is - it's about two to three feet thick.
BLOCK: Is there any chance, Captain Havlik, that you will not be able to make it to Nome with this fuel supply coming behind you?
HAVLIK: Mm. I don't want to speculate on that. And we're making steady progress forward. That's going to be my message.
BLOCK: Now, once you break through the ice, what has to happen? How close behind you is the tanker, the Renda, and is there a chance that the ice might freeze over or that the path might close up behind you?
HAVLIK: The vessel is pretty close behind us. They've been following us a quarter of a mile to about a half mile behind. And we haven't had so much the problem with the ice freezing, but it's a little colder this morning. It's 18 below zero. And as we make a path by the tanker and come back into the track we've made, it's a - it has some refrozen crust on top of it.
BLOCK: Once you get close to the harbor at Nome, what has to happen to get the oil off that tanker and to the people in that city?
HAVLIK: Well, that's a - there's a whole bunch of people, as I understand, in Nome working out what's going to take to get the fuel from Renda pumped over to shore. It's going to take some hose and some ingenuity, I believe.
BLOCK: And then where do you go from there?
HAVLIK: Well, when this operation is done, we'll escort Renda, the Russian tanker, back out to the ice edge, and they'll go their direction, and we'll go ours. And probably that will be back to the home port in Seattle.
BLOCK: Captain Havlik, how long have you and your crew been away from home?
HAVLIK: You know, we left home port back in May, and we were headed toward home with - after our last science mission. And we were - when this opportunity arose, we were extended in this deployment, so we would have been home for the holidays. And it's been eight months. We're coming up on eight months here.
BLOCK: Well, Captain Havlik, best of luck and thanks for talking with us today.
HAVLIK: Well, thank you very much.
BLOCK: Beverly Havlik is the captain of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, which is now about 90 miles from Nome, Alaska, and the Bering Sea, clearing a path for the Russian fuel tanker Renda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.