A Russian tanker, escorted by a Seattle-based Coast Guard cutter, has nearly reached icebound Nome, Alaska, with emergency fuel deliveries

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The Seattle-based Coast Guard cutter Healy has escorted a Russian tanker to within sight of Nome, but the final miles through thick coastal ice are expected to be the most difficult in a first-of-its-kind winter-relief mission to bring fuel to the Northwest Alaska community.

“The old adage seems to be proving itself true, ‘It’s not over until the fat lady sings,’ ” wrote Capt. Pete Garay, an Alaska marine pilot aboard the Russian tanker, Renda, in a Friday text to the Alaska Dispatch news website. “As our morning unfolded it has become abundantly clear. These last few miles could be our most challenging.”

On Friday morning the vessels were within seven miles of land, but needed to move to within one mile so that hoses can be stretched from shore to the tanker. Crew members can then begin offloading more than a million gallons of diesel and unleaded Arctic gasoline, according to a Coast Guard spokesman.

The unloading operation can start only in daylight hours and is not expected to get under way until Saturday at the earliest. The process may take up to 48 hours.

Since ice will build up around the ships during the operation, they must be carefully positioned so they can get moving again once the tanker has been emptied.

“Everything is being done to ensure the safety of the grounds crew, the safety of the marine environment and the safety of the ships,” said Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley, a Coast Guard spokesman in Alaska. “We have taken the time we needed to get the ships safely there, and the last thing we need is to have an injury or a pollution incident.”

The Healy is the Coast Guard’s only operating polar icebreaker. Typically, the Healy — and its crew of some 85 people — spends its summers in the Arctic supporting scientific research. Then it returns to Seattle for the winter.

But this year, because of a big November storm, Nome missed its final shipment of fuel during the ice-free shipping season.

That left the community, inaccessible by road, short of winter fuel and facing the high-price prospect of trying to fly fuel in. Instead, Vitus Marine, an Anchorage-based fuel company, contracted for the Renda to make the winter approach through the ice.

The Coast Guard agreed to send the Healy to assist, and also to use Alaska-based aircraft to conduct reconnaissance flights over the ice.

The mission has extended the cutter’s seasonal operations from seven to eight months, according to Mosley. He said the Coast Guard has contingency funds to cover such operations, but did not have an estimate of the costs.

The Healy met the Renda in Dutch Harbor, an open-water port in the Aleutian Islands chain, and departed from there on Jan. 4. About 300 miles from Nome, the vessels encountered unstable first-year ice, part of the seasonal pack that expands south during the winter months.

The volatile ice moved around a lot and quickly reformed in cleared areas, creating tougher conditions than the Healy would often encounter in the Arctic’s warmer summer months.

“There is really no comparison. It is a completely different environment,” said Kathleen Cole, a National Weather Service Alaska sea-ice specialist who has been assisting the Coast Guard.

Cole said the vessels will encounter thicker formations as they move closer to Nome.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com