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 the 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 deck of the nearby Sidney Lanier Bridge. With a 185-foot vertical clearance for passing ships, the Sidney Lanier Bridge was previously the most commanding presence on the horizon.
Not anymore, observed Scott McQuade, executive director of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“It kind of dwarfs the bridge,” McQuade said, as the VB 10,000 completed its 24-hour journey from the Port of Fernandina.
As McQuade spoke, the crane 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 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 toward 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 surrounding the Golden Ray. Positioning its twin hulls on either side of the shipwreck, the VB 10,000 then inched its way eastward over the auto carrier.
Soon it will get down to the business of cutting the shipwreck into eight separate pieces. The crane vessel is 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. While Fendig piloted the craft from the control station on the port side hull, fellow Brunswick harbor pilot Will Stubbs stood watch on the starboard side hull. 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 on the VB 10,000 concluded. “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 its powerful system of winches and lifting blocks to 400-foot lengths of anchor chain. The chain will shear the ship’s hull into sections, working from the bottom up. It then will 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 the 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 personal interest in the outcome of the pending 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 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 will do.”
Fendig and the other Brunswick harbor pilots arrived in intervals at the pier from a ferry boat, greeted by applause from locals who recognized them. Harbor pilots Gordon Strother and Will Stubbs were on the tugboats Crosby Star and Crosby Leader, which accompanied the VB 10,000 on its journey.
Then there was harbor pilot Jonathan “J.T.” Tennant. After taking an auto carrier out to sea in advance of the crane vessel’s arrival, he weaved through the crowd at the pier, greeting familiar faces. Tennant has seen more than enough of the Golden Ray. He was the harbor pilot on the Golden Ray the night it capsized.
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.”
But it will be several days at least before the cutting phase commences, said Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command. A process of testing, checking and double-checking all the complex parts of the operation, from the mooring to the rigging, will proceed the next step, he said.
“It’s a daily process, really,” Himes said. “Three to five days, ideally. But that is under perfect conditions, perfect weather. Our goal is to operate under caution and with respect to the safety of all involved.”
In anticipation of potential oil leaks during the cutting, crews have placed pollution mitigation booms around environmentally sensitive areas such as Bird, Quarantine and Lanier islands, Himes said. As much as 60,000 gallons fuel remains in the shipwreck’s tanks. Some 320,000 gallons was pumped from its tanks late last year.
There is also the likelihood of vehicles and other large debris shaking loose during the cutting, for which the mesh-net environmental protection barrier was constructed. A floating system of oil booms also surround the surface of the barrier.
Those nearby can also expect loud noise during the cutting, which one Unified Command staff member said could be more accurately described as a “ripping process.” Each cut will take 24 hours and must be continuous until complete.
“It will be noisy. We’re anticipating debris and possibly fluids will be released due to the cutting,” Himes said. “We understand and appreciate the patience of the community. It’s important to understand that it’s going to sound like a construction site.”
Several present Tuesday described how the overturned ship looked to them.
“It almost looks like one of those rides you see at the fair,” mused 17-year-old Jack Fendig, Bruce Fendig’s son.
From her vantage point at the Wyley 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.”