It was a balmy February afternoon at the Pier Village on St. Simons Island Wednesday. All was quiet.
That is not expected to hold for long — the quiet afternoons, that is. Things could get noisy as early as next week when towering piled-driving cranes begin work on a 33-acre environmental construction barrier around the shipwrecked Golden Ray.
The 656-foot behemoth of a vessel has sat half-submerged and overturned in the St. Simons Sound for more than five months, directly between St. Simons and Jekyll islands. It has become something of a landmark and a tourist attraction, dominating the view from the Pier Village waterfront and numerous other vantage points.
Soon village tourists will hear it before they see it.
Officials say the work will entail cutting the ship into pieces and removing the bulk of it within the next five months. Although Unified Command would not commit to an exact date when the project will begin, a spokesman reaffirmed Wednesday that it will start “in mid-February.”
And Unified Command has already warned that the work will begin with a bang. “A hammering sound” is how one official termed it last week.
The barrier’s construction will start with the pounding of dozens of 140-foot-long support piles more than half their length into the sound’s sandy bottom.
The steel pipes are 48 inches in diameter and will be hammered in by towering cranes.
Businesses in the village are bracing for the noise.
At the Sandcastle Café and Grill, proprietor Melissa Wellford plans to sooth over the upcoming construction noise with “Rhapsody in Blue.” Or “Crazy Train.” She pointed to the new speakers in the rafters of the island dining staple, placed inside as well as outside on the patio.
“We had these speakers installed,” said Wellford, who has been here 31 years. “We’re gonna play music and keep everybody calmed down. We may have to play some classical, some Gershwin maybe. But hey, if we need to play Ozzy Osborne, we’re flexible. You have to be flexible in this business.”
Music — and an abundance of good cheer and positivity — will keep Sandcastle’s kitchen busy and its dining tables full through the turbulence ahead, Wellford predicted. She and husband Tim ran the business through thick and thin, until his passing two years ago. Now, it is Wellford and daughter Katherine who are keeping the customers happy.
“I’m grateful, mostly. Glad they got everybody safely off the ship,” Wellford said, referring to the dramatic rescue of the final four crewmen in the tense hours following the ship’s Sept. 8 capsizing. “It could have been so much worse.”
But the noise? “We’ve weathered a lot of things. But here it is almost spring. It could create problems. But I’m leaning on my faith in my creator’s divine hands.”
The piles being installed by contractor Weeks Marines are meant to hold a double-layer mesh net in place. The netting is intended to catch the 4,200 vehicles in the cargo hold and any other debris that comes loose once cutting commences. Workers hope to complete construction of the environmental protection barrier by the end of March, according to Unified Command, which consists of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems.
Inside Tanya’s Treasures it was news to manager Pam Cofer about the cacophony to come from the nearby sound. Like Wellford, however, she found a bright side.
“The people are already going to be here anyway,” she shrugged, sorting clothing on the racks. “They’ll just have to come in here to hide from the noise. We’ll make you a shirt with a ship on it.”
Once the barrier is in place, the cutting and heavy lifting will begin. Contractor T&T Salvage will employ the VB 10,000 floating crane for the task. The crane, about as tall as the clearance of the Sidney Lanier Bridge, will make seven humongous cuts through the Golden Ray’s hull, using a serpent of a diamond-toothed chain saw.
Once it begins cutting, the VB 10,000 cannot stop a cut until completion.
That could take up to 24 noise-making hours for each racket-inducing cut, officials said.
The crane and the barges that haul away the chunks of the Golden Ray will access the shipwreck through a gate in the barrier, officials said. T&T Salvage aims to have the bulk of the ship removed from the sound by June 1, the start of hurricane season.
The noisy weeks ahead could be a distraction at Brogen’s, especially for the establishment’s outdoor seating, manager John Lafite conceded.
“We were talking about it this morning,” Lafite said Wednesday. “I’m kind of concerned about people wanting to sit outside. I don’t know if I would want to be out there listening to that. But we’ve got some people who will be here no matter what. We are kind of wondering just how loud it’s actually going to be.”
Not loud enough to move Andersen from his favorite bar stool.
“I’ll be right here,” said Andersen, who works in the roofing business when he’s not relaxing at Brogen’s.
Sophie Kammer will be there too, greeting diners like always with a welcome smile.
“All we can do is be positive,” the Brogen’s waitress said. “People still want to come out. And that thing’s got to come out. The island is just going to have to come together.”
Some patrons are dreading what’s ahead.
“I am upset,” said islander Matt Andersen, nursing a beer in the downstairs bar at Brogen’s South, which overlooks the sound from across a parking lot. “I won’t be able to drink my beer in peace in here.”