When the salvage master finally got to look at it Friday, the sunken side of Section 5 of the shipwrecked Golden Ray in the St. Simons Sound had more damage than expected.

Which, actually, was kind of expected by T&T Salvage’s salvage master and its engineers, said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command. When the VB 10,000 crane vessel hoisted the humongous chunk of steel entirely out of the water Friday, salvors discovered a portion of its port side hull missing, Himes said.

The hole in the hull constitutes damage that could not be foreseen without seeing it, although experts fully anticipated midship damage to the side of the ship that bore the brunt of impact when the 656-foot-long Golden Ray capsized on Sept. 8, 2019, Himes said.

As a result of this development, crews will spend most or all of this week refitting the steel cradle on the deck of the dry dock barge that will eventually take Section 5, Himes said. The section weighs more than 3,000 metric tons, Himes said.

“Part of the side shell is missing,” Himes said Monday. “Once the salvage master and the engineer could do a visual observation, the engineering team proscribed a rebuild of the cradle system on the dry dock that is going to receive Section 5. What they’re doing is rebuilding the cradle to necessitate more robust structural support so that the section can be stowed safely on the barge.”

After the inspection, the VB 10,000 lowered Section 5 back down into its position of partial submersion in the water to reduce the strain of holding it.

This latest development comes as folks in the Golden Isles anxiously anticipate the removal of the last two sections of wreckage remaining in the waters between St. Simons and Jekyll islands. For the engineers and salvage experts out on the water, it’s just another day at the office.

Salvors commenced in November with their plan to cut the shipwreck into eight sections for removal from the sound, employing the 255-foot-tall VB 10,000 to power the cutting chain and to assume the heavy-lifting tasks. The VB 10,000 powered the cutting chain through its final cut at around midnight on Sept. 4, creating the last two sections.

It has been more than two years since the Golden Ray overturned on its port side while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles. Salvors were fairly certain that the impact inflicted damage at midship when the hull hit the sandbar on the south side of the shipping channel.

That damage was confirmed earlier this summer when the VB 10,000 hoisted Section 3 and then Section 6 from the St. Simons Sound. Both sections showed “side shell” crumpling, deformities and other structural damage, Himes said.

Sections 3, 6, 5 and 4 comprise the middle of the shipwreck, the part that made direct impact with the sandbar. As such, salvors have planned for them accordingly.

The four outer sections of the shipwreck all were cut free and transported whole via barge to Modern American Recycling Services in Gibson, La. All were transported by standard barges.

MARS has established a local dismantling site at 615 Bay St. on the East River in Brunswick to address the four middle sections. Weighing several thousand metric tons each, the middle sections will be cut into chunks of several hundred metric tons for more manageable transport to MARS headquarters in Louisiana.

Salvors are using the broader-decked dry dock barges to get the middle sections from the sound to the Bay Street dismantling site. While not as maneuverable over long distances as a standard barge, a dry dock barge’s broad deck more efficiently distributes ballast and weight. It is therefore better suited for transporting sections with potential structural compromises over shorter distances.

On each barge deck, crews constructed a cradle specifically designed for securing the section designated to it. Once a section is lifted and placed on a barge deck, workers come aboard and weld the section securely to the barge for transport.

The cradles are built based on 3D models and engineers’ complicated math formulas since no one has seen the sunken side of the Golden Ray since it sunk and settled into the St. Simons Sound’s seabed, Himes said.

So when the experts finally got a good look and saw the hole in Section 5’s “outer shell,” they knew some modifications were needed for the cradle that awaits it, Himes said. That is what they were figuring out this weekend.

“The report we had this morning is that most of this week will be spent on the rebuild,” he said. “It was enough (damage) that the salvage master and the engineer knew once they saw the condition of it. They use 3D modeling systems to make the cradle. But they can work by the numbers only so far and that’s why they needed to actually see it.

“It’s not necessarily more damage than they thought,” he added. “We knew there was going to be defamation and damage. But then they got the final piece of information they needed to ensure the cradle system was robust enough. The result is, they have to rebuild the cradle.”

Workers spent all of last week lightening the load in Section 5 by plucking cars from its cargo hold with the Fuchs blue crane. As of Thursday, the crane had removed 72 vehicles from inside Section 5.

Salvors originally estimated the 74-foot-long section of steel weighed approximately 3,800 metric tons. As of Friday, experts had worked that estimate downward to 3,300 metric tons, Himes said.

Meanwhile, the missing piece of port side hull from Section 5 remains on the sandbar and it is not going anywhere, said Himes. It and the untold dozens of vehicles that have slipped free from the shipwreck are inside the 1-mile-perimeter environmental protection barrier (EPB) that surrounds the salvage site. The EPB has sturdy mesh netting below and oil retention boom lining the water’s surface.

Even after these last two sections of the shipwreck are removed from the sound, the EPB will remain in place until all vehicles, shipwreck pieces and other larger debris are removed by cranes and barges, Himes said.

“We are constantly changing out pieces and maintaining the barrier,” Himes said.

The barge Julie B arrived in local waters last week and remains on standby just in case. The longest barge operating in U.S. waters at about 400 feet, the Julie B transported the shipwreck’s bow section (Section 1) in December and Section 2 in March.

It returned, presumably on the notion that one or both of these last two sections of shipwreck might be structurally sound enough to withstand the trip straight to Gibson, La.

That has not been the case for Section 5 and it is not looking good for the 80-foot-long, 4,909-metric-ton Section 4. Still, engineers would rather have a valuable asset on hand if needed than have to send for it later, Himes said.

“The Julie B is here to remove and transport one section, possibly two sections. to Louisiana,” he said. “Section 5 is going on a dry dock barge. It’s very likely that Section 4 will go on a dry dock barge and not go on the Julie B.”

As set forth by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, all costs of the salvage operation and related environmental cleanup are incurred by the Golden Ray’s owner, Hyundai-Glovis, and its insurer.

As of February, that cost stood at around $788 million, according to a London-based insurance industry publication.

Unified Command is responsible for ensuring that the salvage operation adheres to the environmental protection standards established by the Oil Pollution Act. The command consists of the Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems.

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