A welcoming committee of about a thousand folks lined the waterfront Tuesday morning and crowded the St. Simons Island Pier, craning their necks as the colossal VB 10,000 plodded its way toward destiny.
Standing among those gathered in front of the St. Simons Lighthouse, Catherine McCrary could only state the obvious as the hulking crane vessel trudged its way toward the shipwrecked Golden Ray.
“It’s pretty big,” the island resident said. “I think … “
And McCrary’s words trailed off, her attention focused on the immensity of the maritime engineering marvel that is tasked with ridding our St. Simons Sound of the Golden Ray. At 255 feet tall, the towering structure of steel girders that arches into the sky from dual hulls really is taller than the nearby Sidney Lanier Bridge. With a 185-foot clearance beneath it, the Sidney Lanier Bridge was previously the most commanding presence on the Golden Isles horizon.
Not anymore, observed Scott McQuade, executive director of the Golden Isles Visitors Center and Convention Bureau.
“It kind of dwarfs the bridge,” McQuade said, as the VB 10,000 completed in 24-hour journey from the Port of Fernandina.
As McQuade spoke, the VB 10,000 chugged through the shipping channel, splitting the relatively narrow space between the pier and all 656 feet of the capsized Golden Ray. The VB 10,000 is here to cut the shipwreck into pieces and remove it from the St. Simons Sound. After more than a year of seeing the derelict ship ensconced in the waters between Jekyll and St. Simons islands, McQuade joined the prevailing chorus of those gathered for Tuesday’s waterfront spectacle.
“I think we’re ready for it to go,” McQuade said, nodding to the shipwreck. “In the long-run the beauty of the sound without a capsized vessel in it will be a welcome sight.”
The VB 10,000 chugged west past the shipwreck around 10 a.m., then did an about face. The vessel then entered through a gate into the 1-mile diameter environmental protection barrier that surrounds the Golden Ray. Positioning its twin hulls on either side of the shipwreck, the VB 10,000 then inched its way eastward over the Golden Ray. Soon it will get down to business, cutting the shipwreck into eight separate pieces. The crane vessel moored to a system of anchors and sturdy underwater pilings that will steady it during the cutting process.
Brunswick harbor pilot Bruce Fendig met the VB 10,000 at the start of the port’s shipping channel several miles offshore around 6 a.m. With Fendig piloting from the vessel’s control station on the port side, fellow Brunswick harbor pilot Will Stubbs stood watch on the starboard side. For such a substantially broad vessel, the VB 10,000 handled quite nicely, Fendig reported.
“It is by far the most unusual vessel that I’ve ever piloted,” Fendig said at the St. Simons Pier around noon, shortly after his stint onboard the VB 10,000 was completed. “It was challenging but controllable. And they have an excellent staff on board who were very easy to work with.”
The VB 10,000 will attach it powerful system of winches and lifting blocks to 400-foot lengths of anchor chain to shear the ship’s hull into sections, working from the bottom up. It then intends to hoist each severed section of the shipwreck onto an awaiting barge, employing 7,500 gross ton of lifting capacity.
Built in 2010 and based out of Sabine Pass, Texas, the VB 10,000 is the largest lifting vessel operating under a U.S. flag. It is 279 feet long and 304 feet wide.
Heady numbers like these are irresistible to big kids like Atlanta retiree Rick Wilson. His wife Candice Wilson was simply there to enjoy to carnival atmosphere of the event.
“It’s quite something, but my husband is wildly excited about it,” said Candice Wilson, walking along the waterfront as her husband joined the throng at end of the pier. “He calls it the big erector set. He’s been talking about it since day one. You know, boys and their toys.”
A buzz of excitement hovered over the crowd on the pier. Among those was Howard McKenzie, a local longshoreman with a vested interest in the outcome of the coming showdown between the VB 10,000 and the Golden Ray. McKenzie helped load 360 vehicles onto the Golden Ray at the Port of Brunswick on the night of Sept. 7, 2019. The ship capsized while heading out to sea in the predawn hours of the next morning, overturning on its port side with a total of more than 4,200 vehicles in its cargo hold.
“I was on that ship that night,” McKenzie said. “I loaded it. Believe me, I’ve been following this. It’s just a sight to see; it’s a big thing for around here. Now I’m ready to see it do what it do.”
Fendig and the other Brunswick harbor pilots crew arrived in intervals at the pier from a ferry boat to light applause from the many locals who recognized them. Harbor pilots Gordon Strother and Will Stubbs were onboard tugboats Crosby Star and Crosby Leader, which accompanied the VB 10,000 on its journey into the Port of Brunswick shipping channel.
Then there was harbor pilot Jonathan “J.T.” Tennant. After taking a car carrier ship out to sea in advance of the crane vessel’s arrival, he weaved through the crowd at the pier, greeting familiar faces. Tennant also had a vested personal interest in these happenings. He was the harbor pilot onboard the Golden Ray the night it capsized. Tennant and all 23 crew members of the Golden Ray survived the harrowing experience.
“It’s quite a relief for all of us, just to get her out of here,” Tennant said of the Golden Ray. “It’s time for this girl to go.”
Meanwhile, folks started getting accustomed to the newest sore thumb sticking out of the St. Simons Sound.
“It almost looks like one of those rides you see at the fair,” mused 17-year-old Jack Fendig, Bruce’s son.
From her vantage point at the Wylie Street beach access point, Wylie Goodloe found an artistic perspective.
“It looks like … I don’t know, a menagerie in the sky,” the St. Simons Island resident said. “Or maybe a giant pretzel.”