The ocean bound Golden Ray was entering a starboard (right) turn through the shipping channel when the ship first showed signs of instability in the dark morning hours Sunday, U.S. Coast Guard officials said.

The ship began “listing heavily to starboard” before rolling back and toppling completely over on its port (left) side sometime after 1:35 a.m., setting off a Coast Guard rescue mission that retrieved all 24 crewmen aboard over a span of 34 hours.

The priorities of Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and other agencies handing the shipwreck’s aftermath now include combatting water pollutants in nearby waters, removing the behemoth 25,000-ton, 656-foot-long ship from the sound and reopening the shipping lane to the Port of Brunswick — a vital cog in the community’s economy.

Other questions being asked are how and why this happened. The investigation is being headed by the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board. It could take a long time before that investigation is completed and shared with the public, officials agree.

The Brunswick Harbor Pilots Association declined to identify the pilot who was at the controls when incident occurred. Harbor pilots are required to be at the helm to guide ships in and out of the harbor. Harbor pilots go through an intensive apprenticeship, immersing themselves in maritime issues, navigational skills and seamanship. Harbor pilots also are required to gain an intimate understanding of their home port, its shipping channels and the surrounding waters.

Capt. John Cameron, representing the Brunswick Harbor Pilots Association, said he was not at liberty to identify the harbor pilot aboard the Golden Ray during its shipwreck. That harbor pilot is considered a witness in the Coast Guard investigation of the Golden Ray incident, he said.

“I’m saying that I consider the witness list to be the property of the investigators,” Cameron said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to release that. Our commitment is to cooperate fully with the investigation. Releasing information that is of the investigation is contrary to full cooperation.”

The Golden Ray was built in 2017 and is a freighter transporting automobiles. It is more formally known as a vehicle carrier. Such ships are known colloquially as Ro Ros, so called because automobiles roll on to the massive vessels at one port and roll off after a trip to another port. Ro Ro is a well-known term around the Golden Isles, where the Port of Brunswick is one of the busiest Ro Ro ports in America.

The Golden Ray flies under the flag of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. Its crew were mostly Filipinos and at least six South Koreans. The ship arrived at the Port of Brunswick around 9 p.m. Saturday, via Jacksonville, Fla. After loading up with automobiles, it set out again after midnight, bound for Baltimore, Maryland.

Before departing, the ship’s master (captain) is required to perform a calculation that should ensure that the cargo and thus the ship carrying it are stable.

“There are international regulations that do require the ship’s master to do that, yes,” Cameron said. “The seaworthiness of the ship is always the responsibility of the master.”

The Coast Guard received the Golden Ray’s distress call at 2 a.m. Upon arrival Coast Guard detected thick smoke and flames from the skyward-pointing starboard side. Coast Guard search and rescue crews managed to rescue 20 of the 24 merchant mariners that morning before worsening conditions made it unsafe to continue the operation. The four South Korean crewmen who remained trapped inside the Golden Ray were rescued Monday afternoon. Rescue workers cut a 2- to 3-foot hole in the hull stern near the propeller shafts to reach the men.

Now the investigation begins to find out what went wrong and why.Several port and shipping insiders suggested the ultimate cause of the Golden Ray’s wreck may well prove to be a stability issue with its cargo. For an example of why cargo stability aboard such ships is important, one source suggested The News examine the shipwreck of the Ro Ro ship Hoegh Osaka.

The 690-foot freighter was leaving the Port at Southampton Hampshire in England at about 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 3, 2015, carrying a cargo of buses and Range Rovers. The ship made a starboard turn into the Thorn Channel, but then developed a severe list after turning to port near a buoy. The vessel listed so far to port that the ship’s rudder and propellers were clear of the water. The ship’s captain intentionally grounded the Hoegh Osaka on a nearby Bramble Bank. All 24 crew members were rescued.

Salvagers refloated the Hoegh Osaka and berthed it in Southampton by Jan. 22.

An investigation into the incident by Britain’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch later concluded that improper cargo distribution clearly played role in the shipwreck. The Hoegh’s cargo was top heavy.

Included in the MAIB’s summary of finding was this:

“Stability modeling and analysis following the accident show that Hoegh Osaka heeled heavily to starboard while turning as a result of having departed port with inadequate stability. Cargo distribution was such that the upper vehicle decks were full while the lower vehicle decks were lightly loaded. Hoegh Osaka was low on bunker fuel oil, which was stored low down in the ship. With no additional ballast having been loaded prior to departure, the ship’s overall centre of gravity was relatively high. The analysis also concluded that it was most likely that the cargo shifted due to the ship’s excessive list and was not causal to the accident.”

The investigation into hows and whys of what happened to the Golden Ray are just beginning.

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