Islander part of Coast Guard crew that made historic trip to Alaska

The Healy escorted the Renda through ice that was 10-feet thick in places.  - Courtesy Photo
The Healy escorted the Renda through ice that was 10-feet thick in places.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Avery Weston joined the U.S. Coast Guard because he was hoping to embark on a life of adventure — where the thrill came not from military missions but humanitarian ones.

A year after graduating from the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., he got a taste of what he was looking for.

Weston, a 2006 graduate of Vashon High School, was assigned to the cutter Healy upon completion of his four-year stint at the academy. As a result, the freshly minted lieutenant found himself on a historic mission, part of the crew that made a 254-day trip that included an 300-mile journey across the frozen Bering Sea to get much-needed oil to residents of ice-bound Nome, Alaska.

The nine-day mission — cutting a path through the ice so that a Russian-flagged oil tanker could make its way to the small coastal city — garnered headlines along the way. It was the first time fuel had been delivered to a western Alaska community by sea in the winter.

The crew returned to Seattle, where the Healy is based, to a hero’s welcome on Feb. 5. Last week, Weston sat in the living room of his family home on Ridge Road, grinning as he recalled the thrill of the journey.

“I enjoyed the whole experience,” he said.

“Towards the end,” he added, “I was up on the bridge, driving this 420-foot behemoth through ice that was six feet deep.”

Like the rest of the crew, Weston, an engineer and one of 16 officers on the ship, assumed he’d be home for Christmas when the Healy set sail on May 27. The mission he was on was a scientific one centered around marine and arctic research — mapping the Continental Shelf, analyzing currents and studying copepods, small, shrimp-like creatures, on a journey that would take the crew close to the North Pole.

Meanwhile, however, another drama was unfolding in the northern Pacific, after the tanker slated to make the last oil delivery of the year to Nome couldn’t get there because of a severe winter storm. The city was close to depleting its supply, and various options — flying the oil in, for instance — were discarded because of logistical difficulties.

And so on Dec. 15 the crew got the call that the Healy, the only polar icebreaker in the U.S. fleet, had another job to do — breaking through ice six to 10 feet thick in places so that the Russian-flagged Renda could get oil to Nome.

It took an act of Congress to allow the Healy to undertake the mission. The Jones Act says foreign-flagged vessels can’t transport cargo between U.S. ports, which is exactly what the Healy was going to enable the Renda to do. Congress had to vote to allow an exception, Weston said.

Ultimately, the Healy departed from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 3 to cut a swath to Nome.

It’s not easy to spend several days on an icebreaker, especially when it’s actually breaking ice, Weston said. The ship vibrates constantly, and the noise never lets up. The precision of the assignment was also nerve-rattling. Several times, he said, the path the Healy cleared for the Renda would close up around the tanker, and the Healy would have to turn around and do it again, running perilously close to a tanker with a million gallons of oil on board.

“They get stuck five times a day,” he recalled. “There was one day when we made negative distance.”

Weston’s role was one of student engineer, he said. But he also had a second assignment — morale officer — a job that required him to come up with creative ways to keep spirits up among the 84-member crew during a trip that put morale to the test.

Weston organized indoor soccer games, barbecues on the flight deck and what he called a “big Monte Carlo event,” replete with a roulette table.

Though long and arduous, the 254-day journey was also beautiful, he said. He saw the Northern Lights countless times; pods of whales often surfaced nearby; a snowy owl sat on the ship’s bow for an entire day.

To Weston, it was exactly what he had hoped he was signing up for when he headed off to the Coast Guard Academy.

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” he said.


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