Golden Ray Shipwreck: How Many More Golden Days?

BY GARY JONES

Capsized cargo ship, the Golden Ray, where it overturned in St. Simons Sound.
Credit: VICTORIA 1988/Shutterstock.com

It has been a year and a half since the giant 656-ft. Golden Ray ship capsized in St. Simon Sound off the coast of the Port of Brunswick, Ga. The question inquiring minds want answered is, when will this salvage project be finished? Though there may be a few speculative dates in place the events and setbacks that take place on a job this big can be quite unpredictable. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, operating in a safe and healthy manner leaves timeliness on the backburner. Better to take the time and complete the job the right way than to rush and make things worse. As many of us have observed when it comes to salvage operations, things can always get worse.

On September 8, 2019, the Golden Ray (outbound) was sharing the same channel as the Emerald Grace (inbound) and were trying to perform a head-to-head passing. When this occurs, each ship will try to stay as far at the end of their channel as possible in order to pass each other successfully. As the Golden Ray leaned into the turn, she started to over rotate into starboard, so the pilot applied counter rudder to compensate for the shift and reduce the rate of turn. She then capsized in shallow water. According to the final report from the US Coast Guard, the reason she capsized was a combination of improper ballasting and improper securing in a shallow water environment. The report stated that either 1,500 gallons of water in the ballast tanks or rearranging the cars could have prevented this. She was carrying around 4,300 cars in her cargo holds, according to a report by Car and Driver.

The Golden Ray remains on her side in 40 feet of water balanced midship on a berm and secured in place by stone. She is being cut and removed where she sits by the Versabar VB 10,000 owned and operated by Versamarine. The VB 10,000 is the largest US vessel of her type and is a heavy-lift twin-gantry catamaran that rests on two barges. It was initially designed to removed debris from toppled over oil rigs in the Gulf.

The type of cutting the VB 10,000 is set to do is very similar to what SMIT International did when lifting the Russian nuclear submarine, the Kursk. Interestingly, SMIT was the first contractor on the job, however, after procedural disagreements with how many pieces the ship was supposed to be cut into, the contractor was changed to Gallagher Marine. The ship was then selected to be cut into eight pieces.

Procedurally, however, whether it is a ship or submarine, contractors typically start with containing the surrounding environment and sending divers in to assess the damage. After further hazard safety analysis are conducted, usually the fuel is removed from the vessel. Then the divers are redeployed to begin cutting holes in the vessel with either a high-powered water jetting machine or a burning torch. Exothermic cutting is avoided if there is a potential for gas build up. Then, large chains are strung through the holes and run on the underside of the ship. Sometimes a form of slant drilling is required to get the chain in place underneath the vessel.

Once the chains are in position, they are tensioned. Driven by two engines the chain begins to reciprocate allowing the cut to be made in a sawing motion that looks like the bow on a violin gliding across the strings. If any divers are having trouble picturing this, it also looks a lot like most of us do when trying to floss a molar in the back of your mouth. The chain links rip through the ship’s hulls along with anything else in its path. This method is loud and is not always fast. Typically, issues with the chains wearing and breaking cause significant downtime. I believe this may have occurred with the salvage of the Golden Ray because what was once thought to be a 24-hour period between cuts has turned out to take up to 20 days. The chain has also been seen having to undergo maintenance and repair after the first two cuts.

Techniques to speed up this process include using a hard-faced chain. Not that I am trying to plug my company, but Broco does offer a nickel-based hard facing with cutting properties that would speed that up significantly if anyone is interested. During this operation, divers will be called in and out of the water to ensure that the operation is running as planned and to help adjust with the chain on the fly. Diver safety is always a concern when working around these 80-pound chain links. The cutting chain is 400 feet long, and each 80-pound link is 1.5 feet long from end to end with a thickness of three inches, according to a report by the St. Simons Incident Response Team. Divers should watch all hands and be careful of the many pinch points when navigating around the chain especially if parts of it are under tension.

There are many hazardous materials in play, among them are batteries, brake fluid, transmission fluid and fuel. Environmentalist concerns grow daily as the project has had a litany of starts and stops. Work was already paused for two months because of COVID-19 and with the winter weather and fog making visibility difficult, there could be further delays. There is also limited visibility in the brown water in St. Simons Sound.

There are several ADCI member companies (TNT, Moran Environmental and Weeks Marine to name a few) working on the with the Unified Command consisting of the US Coast Guard, Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems to get this project completed as safely and quickly as possible.

So, here is what we know. As of February 14, they are cutting on the third section of the Golden Ray. This section is where the engine room is located. There is concern that cutting into the engine as well as cutting into the fuel tank lines will release a significant amount of fuel into the surrounding water, so Moran Environmental is on the scene, standing by and constantly cleaning and clearing the water oil and debris with specialized spill response equipment.

While several dozen cars have been removed from the stern, there are still many onboard. A total of 4,000 Hyundai’s and Kia’s were reported, but over the past few days we have seen many GMC’s and Chevy’s removed and transported away from the vessel via barge. Video footage from the Minorcan Mullet confirms this.

Last year, there was an eagerness to remove the Golden Ray before Hurricane season started. Here we are a year later trying to do the same thing. Although she does not pose an immediate navigation hazard in the St. Simons Sound, the local community would like to see her removed as quickly as possible. With the Unified Command, TNT and Versabar responders at the helm a positive outcome for this operation should be realized shortly. This may not be such a positive outcome if you are the insurance company that must cover this claim. I am predicting a rate hike for Hyundai soon.