The crew of the VB 10,000 crane vessel was expected to resume today its efforts to cut off the bow of the shipwrecked Golden Ray in the St. Simons Sound, officials said.

Unified Command ceased cutting operations Thursday as a safety precaution when Glynn County was in the likely path of Tropical Storm Eta. Fortunately, Eta brought only passing rain showers and stiff winds to our area as it cut across north Florida from the Gulf of Mexico, entering the Atlantic Ocean near the state line.

Crews spent Saturday and Sunday returning some 12,000 feet of oil-spill protective boom to sensitive areas of the St. Simons Sound and surrounding estuary, said Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command. The boom was taken up last week to prevent its possible destruction had Eta struck closer to home. Crews have placed a total of 25,000 feet of oil-spill prevention boom in environmentally sensitive areas of the waters around the sound.

Workers also had to reinstall the two gates to the 1-mile perimeter environmental protection barrier, which surrounds the 656-foot-long shipwrecked Golden Ray, Himes said. Like the boom, the gates were removed for safekeeping to avoid possible destruction.

The cutting will resume at about the halfway point of separating the bow from the Golden Ray, Himes said. Late last week, the 400-foot length of anchor chain doing the cutting had advanced up through the shipwreck to a level above the waterline. The Golden Ray has been entrenched and half-submerged in the St. Simons Sound since Sept. 8, 2019, when it capsized on its port side while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.

Weather delays notwithstanding, this first of seven cuts into the Golden Ray has taken considerably longer than Unified Command had announced and anticipated. Officials had originally anticipating 24 hours of nonstop cutting efforts to sever each section.

The 255-foot-tall dual-hulled VB 10,000 sits astride the shipwreck, its system of pulleys, blocks and winches manipulating a massive anchor chain back and forth to literally shear through the ship’s hull. It also is cutting through bulwarks, fuel and ballast tanks and other interior structures within the ship. The cut began around noon on Nov. 6.

Barely 24 hours into the cut, progress was hampered when one of the 18-inch-long, 80-pound chain links broke in the early afternoon of Nov. 7. A diver helped retrieve the loose chain, and its broken link was replaced. Cutting resumed late that night.

Crew members of the VB 10,000 have since began inspecting chain links for wear and tear, replacing stressed links before they break.

The overall plan is to cut the shipwreck into eight sections. The massive VB 10,000 will hoist each section from the water and load it onto an awaiting barge for removal.

As Unified Command has oft-noted, this effort to remove a colossal shipwreck from swift-moving tidal current between two resort islands is an unprecedented endeavor, as this type of salvage operation has never been done. The VB 10,000 is the largest lifting vessel operating in U.S. water but is intended for dismantling offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Observers should not necessarily conclude that every cut will be as lengthy an undertaking as this first cut, Himes said. Crew members and engineers on scene are learning with each setback and every step forward, Himes said.

“This is a very complex thing, this cutting operation,” he said. “It has necessitated some fine tuning of the process. They have been taking the opportunity while the storm was passing to make some of the adjustments to improve the efficiency of cutting while also improving the safety. These improvements might actually expedite the process and improve efficiency.”

Still, members of the salvage operations have made plans to stick around longer than expected. Last week, Epworth by the Sea officials announced that the retreat and convention center will continue through March to serve as sequestered lodging for some 100 essential members of the salvage crew. These indispensable players in the salvage operation are being lodged at Epworth to avoid exposure to COVID-19. Their status as the exclusive guests of Epworth’s rooms and facilities was initially contracted through early 2021.

“We secured that facility through March as part of the planning process,” Himes said. “That doesn’t mean we will be here through March; it simply means that whatever the previous contract called for, there is a strong likelihood that we will be here beyond that date.”

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