Brunswick harbor pilot Jonathan “J.T.” Tennant had done this several thousand times by now — steer a city block-sized cargo ship from the Brunswick River to the St. Simons Sound and then hang a right.
Nothing in his wealth of experience indicated what was about to happen next on the morning of Sept. 8, 2019, Tennant said Friday. With an incoming high tide halfway to cresting, Tennant steered the 656-foot-long car carrier Golden Ray into a 10-degree starboard turn, traveling at just over 12.4 knots. Routine stuff, like he said.
But when he gave the vessel the usual increase to a 20-degree turn, things went haywire aboard the Golden Ray.
“There were no pre-indicators of anything out of the ordinary — until I applied starboard twenty, at which time the vessel immediately took off to starboard more than I’ve ever experienced in my career,” Tennant testified.
Tennant was still trying to steer the thing as it teetered farther and farther out of control.
“I have no idea I’m about to capsize,” Tennant said, testifying on the fifth day of the public hearing in the formal investigation of the shipwreck of the Golden Ray.
It marked the first time Tennant could speak publicly about what went down that morning on the ship, which remains half-submerged in the St. Simons Sound with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles in its belly more than a year later.
Like the ship’s captain told investigators during testimony Thursday, the Golden Ray was sailing fine right up until the moment that it wasn’t.
“Everything was just as normal as could be, until it capsized,” said Tennant, a 20-year veteran pilot of the Brunswick harbor. “It’s an unexplainable situation that I’ve never experienced as a captain. Nowhere can someone train for a capsizing event.”
The hearing took place at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources headquarters.
The shipwreck is being investigated by the U.S. Coast Guard with assistance from the National Transportation Safety Board. Others involved include the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ Maritime Administrator, representing the ship’s flag state, and the Korean Maritime Safety Tribunal.
The hearings will resume Monday at 10:30 a.m. and wrap up Tuesday.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic precautions, only participants are allowed inside the meeting. The public can follow the proceedings at: https://livestream.com/USCGinvestigations. The public can submit questions and comments via email at: USCGGoldenRay@gmail.com.
Tennant had piloted the Golden Ray into port when it arrived in Brunswick from Jacksonville on Sept. 7, 2019, he testified. As is customary, Tennant developed an immediate rapport with the ship’s captain, Gi Hak Lee, he said.
The harbor pilot’s role is as old and enduring a maritime tradition as going to sea itself. With a wealth of knowledge on the local waters, the harbor pilot’s role is to guide incoming merchant ships safely to port.
Tennant said he has piloted more than 5,000 ships in and out of the Port of Brunswick during his career. More than 90 percent of the vessels calling on Brunswick are Ro-Ro’s, so-called because they roll vehicles on in one port and roll them off in another.
Built in 2017, the Golden Ray is among a newer, larger class of Ro-Ro’s known as neo-panamax, a reference to new standards of shipping on the Panama Canal.
Investigators asked Tennant several questions concerning the handling of neo-panamax vessels. The rudder is a little slow in response to commands, he said, noting that he was only offering a pilot’s opinion. Tennant said the rudder response is not a major issue for him — just one of numerous variables a pilot encounters.
A harbor boat ferried Tennant out to meet the Golden Ray at sea at around 3 p.m. on Sept. 17, he said. Brunswick harbor pilots stick with the same ship in and out of the port, he said. There were no issues with the ship’s handling inbound, from beyond the first buoy marking the shipping channel to its docking at Colonel’s Island in Brunswick, he said.
Lee, a veteran sea captain, welcomed Tennant’s guidance. Lee let Tennant know that the ship intended to depart some time after midnight, Sept. 8.
“He was a professional,” Tennant said.
Stevedores at the port rolled off 280 compact vehicles from the Golden Ray and then rolled on about 360 Kia Telluride SUVs, according to earlier testimony. The ship’s chief officer conducted a computer-generated stability calculation that indicated sufficient distribution of cargo weight within the hold, Lee testified.
The ship required only one tugboat to pull out of its stern-first berth, Tennant said. “If it was a clumsy and a poor handler, I would have taken a second tug,” he said.
The Ro-Ro vessel Emerald Ace and harbor pilot James Kavanaugh would be coming in to port as Tennant and Golden Ray were heading out, he said. The two arranged to cross paths with each other somewhere between the St. Simons Pier and the St. Simons Lighthouse, Tennant said.
The Golden Ray slipped under the Sidney Lanier Bridge and into the shipping channel’s Jekyll Island Range on the Brunswick River, approaching the Plantation Creek Range that leads out to sea through the St. Simons Sound, he said.
Then came that right hand turn he has taken countless times.
“Immediately after applying the 20-degree rudder, she began to rotate to starboard at an alarming rate,” Tennant said.
Tennant steered back to port in an effort to right the ship. “I applied counter rudder, which is hard to port,” he said. “That’s when I realized I was losing the ship.”
He reached Kavanaugh on the Golden Ray’s radio to warn him. “I said, ‘Watch out, Jamie, I’m losing her.” (Kavanaugh managed to slip past the foundering Golden Ray and into the Brunswick River, where it remained in a holding pattern to free tugboats up for the Golden Ray rescue efforts.)
By then the inevitable was in motion. “She was capsizing to port, but turning starboard,” he said. “She was break-dancing on me.”
With his seafaring world spinning upside down, Tennant held his post, did his job. “I’m trying not to fall straight down, looking (down) at the water and the sound,” he said.
He continued giving orders to the Golden Ray’s officers on the ship’s bridge, trying to get the vessel onto the sand bar on the Jekyll Island side of the channel. At some point the ship’s rudder rose out of the water, rendering navigation efforts useless. The ship was moving in that direction regardless, he said.
“She had enough momentum that it carried her out of the channel,” Tennant said. “Then I had a sense that I need to get to driving her as far up on the sound as possible to preserve human life. At that point she just plowed into the sound.”
A moment that Tennant chalks up to providence occurred when his life vest landed practically in his hands instead of tumbling out of reach. His marine radio was clipped to the jacket.
“My life vest slid to me,” he said.
Tennant used that radio to contact the Coast Guard station in Charleston, S.C., alerting them to a full-blown maritime emergency. “I could see this for what it was,” he said. “This was a life-saving event, not a piloting event.”
The ship’s captain relayed information to Tennant about the crew’s condition and location. Tennant knew the ship’s side vents would quickly take in water. And he feared the ship might still roll below the shipping channel.
Fire and smoke emerged from the exposed starboard hull.
The sound of the Coast Guard helicopters flying overhead is music to Tennant’s ears to this day, he said.
A tugboat from Moran Towing in Brunswick was soon on the scene, up against the ship’s hull and applying pressure to keep it from keeling over into the channel.
Vessels from Coast Guard Station Brunswick, the state Department of Natural Resources and others were on scene to pick up crew members. Glynn County Fire Department first-responders arrived. Local folks with boats to put in the effort stood at the ready, he said.
“I tried to assure the captain we’re OK,” Tennant said. “I said, ‘We’re on a sand bar. The cavalry is on the way. I’ve called the Coast Guard.’ The tugboats were there. They were looking for survivors in the water.”
All 23 mariners aboard the Golden Ray were rescued, the final four crewmen plucked more than 36 hours later from a hole cut in the stern.
Tennant slid out of the bridge and down to a rescue boat on a length of firehose. Lee was hoisted out via helicopter.
Tennant returned to work. He has since guided 160 vessels in and out of the Port of Brunswick.
Except for the one right hand turn in the St. Simons Sound, the ships since have all been pretty much like the Golden Ray.
“She handled like any other car carrier,” Tennant said of the Golden Ray.