The loading and unloading of vehicles onto the Golden Ray was business as usual on the night of Sept. 7, 2019, with nothing to indicate the disaster that awaited the car carrier several hours later in the St. Simons Sound.
So said stevedore lead foreman Steve Farley, testifying Tuesday before the formal hearing into the shipwreck that has left the 656-foot vessel still half-submerged on its side in the St. Simons Sound more than a year later. The Golden Ray capsized in the early morning hours of Sept. 8, 2019, while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.
Farley testified during the second day of the hearings, held at the Marshes of Glynn Library in Brunswick. Capt. Blake Welborn, lead investigator for the U.S. Coast Guard, moderated the proceedings. Also on hand was Capt. David Flaherty of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the shipwreck jointly with the Coast Guard.
After the Golden Ray docked at the Port of Brunswick on Sept. 7, Farley supervised the stevedore crew that unloaded vehicles and then loaded more vehicles before the ship's departure. Farley said the crew unloaded 280 vehicles of Mexican make. The ship's previous ports of call included two stops in Mexican ports in August.
The stevedore crew then loaded the ship with 360 vehicles, Farley said. All were Kia Tellurides, SUVs, he said. The Mexican vehicles were offloaded from decks 11, 12 – uppermost decks below only the 13th deck. Kia Tellurides were loaded back into the spaces emptied on decks 11 and 12 by the vehicles just offloaded. An overflow of about 65 vehicles was loaded into the central fifth deck, he said.
Each Kia weighs about 1.9 tons, he said.
Vehicles are lashed down in rows inside the cargo hold, with sturdy straps across the back and two across the front. Hooks are attached to the vehicles to accommodate the security lashes, he said.
The job took no more than a few hours and was completed at 10:42 p.m., Farley said.
"I usually don't have a problem in Brunswick," said Farley, who works out of the local port as a contractor with the stevedoring company SSA Atlantic. "They're pretty good. They've been doing this a long time."
Maritime insiders have suggested from the start that the Golden Ray may have capsized due to an imbalance in weight distribution of the ship. In particular, a top-heavy load was cited as the reason the Hoegh Osaka car carrier capsized in early 2015 while departing Southampton Hampshire in England.
While investigators have yet to offer a possible cause for the Golden Ray's capsizing, Tuesday morning's questioning clearly indicated they were interested in how the ship's cargo hold was loaded.
The Golden Ray listed heavily to starboard before listing to port and rolling over between St. Simons and Jekyll islands, where it has remained since.
Farley was asked if he noticed the Golden Ray listing during the stevedoring process that night.
"I didn't notice any listing," he said. "Nothing out of the ordinary. I've seen ships list a lot and we'll stop working if that happens."
Farley said a ship's owner sends him a manifest before each vessel's arrival showing exactly which vehicles are offloaded and which vehicles will be onloaded.
The South Korean company Glovis Hyundai owns the Golden Ray.
Farley said he has never encountered a "stability issue" while stevedoring a car carrier vessel.
"I load them where they tell me to put them," Farley said.
The vehicles have no more than a couple of gallons of fuel in their tanks during transport, he said.
The hearing continues Tuesday afternoon with testimony from Jason O'Kane of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.