With sufficient ballast or an adjustment to its cargo, the 656-foot-long car carrier Golden Ray might not have capsized in the St. Simons Sound, a U.S. Coast Guard naval architect testified Tuesday.
Coast Guard Lt. Ian Oviatt calculated that the ship’s ballast was light and its cargo of 4,200 vehicles was top heavy, creating prime conditions for the maritime disaster that occurred in the predawn hours of Sept. 8, 2019. More than a year later, the behemoth vessel remains half-submerged in the waters between St. Simons and Jekyll islands.
Oviatt testified on the final day of the formal hearing into the shipwreck of the Golden Ray. Hydrodynamic stability expert Dr. Jeffrey Falzarano also testified, drawing conclusions similar to Oviatt’s.
Oviatt said the ship was out of compliance with maritime regulations in at least two areas: one dealing with a ship’s ability to right itself; another dealing with its ability to maintain buoyancy against wind and rolling such as occurs during turns.
The Golden Ray could have brought itself into compliance by taking on 1,500 metric tons of ballast in its hull, Oviatt said. Specifically, he noted the 1,500 metric tons of ballast the ship took on in route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.
Golden Ray captain Gi Hak Lee testified last week that the ship took on the ballast to withstand the effects of Hurricane Dorian, which the ship avoided by slowing its journey and following behind as the storm moved up the Atlantic coast.
The Golden Ray emptied that ballast after the threat of rough seas from the hurricane subsided, Lee testified.
Oviatt testified also that the Golden Ray’s cargo hold had a “significantly higher center of gravity.”
Correcting either imbalance would have brought the ship into compliance, he said, possibly preventing the capsizing that occurred.
“The vessel could have taken on additional ballast, or the cargo could have been shifted so that the cargo was at a lower center of gravity,” said Oviatt, an engineer attached to the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Center in Washington, D.C.
Additionally, he said, water pouring into the ship through the open harbor pilot door, located midway up the ship’s hull, “exacerbated” the capsizing. Flooding from the open pilot door began after the capsizing was already in motion, he said. The capsizing was inevitable at that point and would have occurred even if the airtight pilot door had been sealed, he added.
Oviatt based his conclusions on studies of computer models made of the ship’s cargo placement, fuel tank contents, ballast and other factors, he said. Data about the vessel’s exact condition came from a computer known as IMAC that was retrieved from the Golden Ray after the shipwreck, he said.
The investigation into the shipwreck is being conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard with assistance from the National Transportation Safety Board. Providing further input to the investigation are the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ Maritime Administrator, representing the ship’s flag state, and the Korean Maritime Safety Tribunal.
Lead investigator Capt. Blake Welborn said the seven days of testimony that began Sept. 14 will help investigators reach a final conclusion on the shipwreck’s cause. He noted that the investigation’s purpose is to avoid such tragedies in the future. The investigation is not interested in distributing blame or imposing punishments, he said.
He further thanked all involved in the rescue effort that saved the 24 mariners aboard the ship, including four who were plucked from a hole cut in the stern of the ship’s hull more than 36 hours after the shipwreck.
“The purpose of this investigation is to discover what caused and contributed to the Golden Ray capsizing with the goal of preventing similar casualties in the future,” Welborn said. “My close association with this investigation has reaffirmed the strong cooperative spirit within the maritime community… If not for the selfless, quick and committed actions of some, this incident would have certainly been more catastrophic.”
Throughout the hearing, investigators asked those involved in the disaster repeated questions about the ship’s stability. From a stevedore foreman at the Port of Brunswick to the ship’s captain and the harbor pilot at the helm, all have said the ship handled smoothly and showed no signs of instability – right up until the moment that it capsized some time after 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 8. With Capt. Lee beside him, Brunswick harbor pilot T.J. Tennant was executing a sharp but routine starboard turn, moving from the Brunswick River into the St. Simons Sound which leads out to sea.
Tennant experienced no problems until he gave the ship’s rudder the usual increase from a 10-degree turn to a 20-degree turn. The ship immediately listed hard to starboard, then rolled back to port and kept going until it capsized.
Oviatt concluded that the ship’s problem was in the math all along. While no one onboard may have detected anything out of the ordinary, Oviatt maintains the conditions for instability were there all along.
Oviatt reviewed several maritime calculations that determine everything from a ship’s ability to right itself to the centrifugal forces of gravity and buoyancy that are always in play aboard ship.
Central to all of this is an imaginary point above the ship known as GM, or metacentric height. The GM is attained by calculating the distance between the ship’s center of gravity and that imaginary point, the metacenter.
These calculations added up to the Golden Ray being out of compliance with two of the four standards established by the international maritime Intact Stability Code of 2008, Oviatt said. In fact, based on his research, the Golden Ray was out of compliance throughout much of its journey from Freeport, Texas, on Aug. 28 to its capsizing in the St. Simons Sound, he said.
Somewhere in its journey from the Gulf to the Atlantic, the ship took on 1,500 metric tons of ballast, Oviatt said. It was done to offset rough seas created by the powerful Hurricane Dorian, Lee testified earlier.
“The vessel could have capsized during either of the preceding voyages,” Oviatt said, referring to the trips from Texas to Jacksonville and from Jacksonville to Brunswick. “Had it kept the additional ballast … that would have put them in full compliance.”
The Golden Ray arrived in Brunswick from Jacksonville on Sept. 7, where it unloaded 280 compact cars and took on about 360 Kia Tellurides SUVs.
The ship had a total weight of 35,044 tons, which included 8,780 tons of cargo and 4,600 tons of fuel, Oviatt said.
Golden Ray First Officer Park Hyunjin used a LOADCOM maritime computer to calculate the ship’s stability at 2.45 GM before departure, according to earlier testimony.
However, Oviatt said his study has determined the ship’s GM was actually closer to a less-than-satisfactory level of 1.76 when the ship capsized. (The Golden Ray’s LOADCOM computer was later recovered from the shipwreck, but it was too damaged to surrender its contents, Welborn noted.)
Oviatt said the issue of noncompliance only “poses a higher risk” of capsizing. Although routine for traffic in and out of the Port of Brunswick, that sharp turn in the shipping channel from the river to the sound likely produced the conditions for it, Oviatt and Falzarano concluded.
Despite counter measures by Tennant and Lee to prevent the capsizing, it is difficult to stop such a force once it is in motion, Falzarano said.
“Dealing with a vessel that is unstable is like trying to balance a pencil on its head,” he said. “It’s very hard to do. … Things happen very quickly.”