Salvors let the cutting chain rip on the next section of that half-submerged scrap-metal heap in the St. Simons Sound on Thursday night.
The twin-hulled VB 10,000 crane vessel is in place astride the foremost end of what remains of the shipwrecked Golden Ray, which overturned Sept. 8, 2019 while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.
The two-day task of installing a tougher grade of cutting chain wrapped up Thursday morning. The VB 10,000’s system of pulleys, blocks and winches that power that chain’s cutting cycles up through the shipwreck’s many layers of solid steel is rigged up and ready.
Salvors begin this fifth cut into the shipwreck with the optimism that perhaps the toughest half of the salvage operation is now behind them. Texas-based T&T Salvage will enter a new phase in this unprecedented and epic undertaking, entering into it with crucial lessons learned since the cutting first began 182 days ago. The golden Ray’s carcass once stretched 656 feet across the waters between St. Simons and Jekyll islands. About 300 feet of it remains.
“The benefit going into the fifth cut is all the things they have learned and implemented in the previous four cuts,” said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesperson for Unified Command.
Known to salvors as Section 3, it is the first of the four middle sections of the shipwreck. What it is not is the intensely difficult Section 7, which now rests atop a barge docked at Mayor’s Point on the East River in Brunswick. With Section 7 rests the ship’s engine, which was supported by dense steel reinforcement that consumed a total of 87 days and presented manifold setbacks before its separation was completed April 24.
So difficult was Section 7 that salvors staged a strategic retreat from the cutting operation back in late February to concentrate instead on Section 2.
Why does this matter? Because the cutting of Section 2 took a comparatively eight short days back in March. And? The naval engineers and salvage managers believe that Section 3 is structurally similar to Section 2. What is more, salvors do not expect any of the remaining four sections to present the tenacious obstacles endured during the cutting of Section 7.
“They don’t expect to encounter the same thickness in this section that they did in the last one (Section 7),” Himes said. “We could encounter the unexpected. That said, this cut is very similar to Section 2 in what the chain will be moving through.”
Those lessons learned are being applied. The new cutting chain that salvors installed this week is forged of grade 4 steel, stronger than the grade 3 steel chain that had already been in place. During preparations last year in advance of the actual cutting, salvors laid out seven cutting chains of grade 3 steel along the designated sections of the shipwreck. The chains were fed beneath the sunken port side and draped over the exposed starboard side.
The first cut began Nov. 6 on Section 1, the bow section. Salvors encountered the first chain break the next day. Several chain breaks and a delay induced by potential tropical storm conditions extended that first cut to three weeks, finally completed on Nov. 28.
Cutting began Dec. 25 on Section 8, the stern section. The cut was completed on Jan. 2. Salvors worked in 90-foot lengths of grade 4 cutting chain as the grade 3 cutting chain showed signs of wear.
Cutting began Jan. 27 on Section 7. Salvors made a strategic withdrawal from Section 7 on Feb. 26 after a chain break, the fifth work stoppage due to equipment failure.
When cutting began March 7 on Section 2, advance preparations included the complete replacement of the existing grade 3 chain with grade 4 chain. This perhaps contributed to completion of that cut eight days later on March 15.
When salvors resumed cutting Section 7 on April 13, they had already worked in grade 5 steel cutting chain. Grade 5 is the strongest standard of mooring chain available.
Engineers have determined grade 4 steel chain likely will suffice for the task of cutting through Section 3. Just in case, salvors have placed a sturdy cable line near the cutting chain. It is there to retrieve the cutting chain’s ends and put them back in place for connection should a break occur. The wire has a lifting capacity of 100 tons, Himes said.
“One of the things they have implemented for this cut is a messenger line,” Himes said. “If there is a part failure, whether a joining link or an actual chain break, they’ll have that line ready to go for retrieval and placement.”
The salvors have also extended the precutting of exterior steel along the section’s cutting path, Himes said. Using 6-foot-long welding torches, workers have cut away sheets of exterior steel along most of the exposed sections of the cutting path. Divers also are stripping away exterior steel along the cutting path below water to the extents safely possible.
This is an extension of practices applied early on, beginning with a connect-the-dots line of holes drilled along the exterior cutting path.
“One of the more visible changes for Section 3 that is different, they are now precutting not just up the side of the (exposed) hull, they are also extending it almost all the way across the topside,” Himes said. “Divers are also precutting along the grooves below water. The goal is to remove as much exterior steel as possible.”
What really changes with the shipwreck’s middle sections is the lifting process. Once separated, the four outer sections all were lifted completely out of the water for placement onto an awaiting barge. The lifting is achieved with cables on the 255-foot-tall VB 10,000 that are previously attached to giant lifting lugs affixed to the exposed starboard side of the shipwreck.
Because of concerns over structural integrity, the middle sections will not be lifted entirely out of the water. Salvors will employ dry dock barges in discarding the middle sections. The deck of a dry dock barge is mechanically lowered below the water to receive its load. The decks can then be raised with the load.
Engineers have deduced that the middle sections were the most likely to endure the brunt of structural damage incurred upon impact with sound’s sandy bottom during the Golden Ray’s capsizing, Himes said. However, these engineers are cautiously optimistic about the potential extent of such damage, based on inspections of the four outer sections.
“Now that we’re about to start cutting the center sections of the ship, they are encouraged by what observations they have already made from the outer sections,” Himes said. “But it’s still a case-by-base process, every step of the way.”
And the next step for these four remaining sections will be a vast field at Mayor’s Point, between the East River and Bay Street in Brunswick. The plan is to haul all four middle sections to this location, where they will be partially dismantled before being transported away.
“We are being very prudent in how we approach this,” Himes said. “This site (on the East River) is permitted with all the protocol in place.”
Meanwhile, work continues on sea fastening Section 7 to barge 455-7 in preparation for its journey out of here. Once that work is complete to Coast Guard inspectors’ satisfaction and weather conditions permit, the 6,300-ton section will go directly to Modern American Recycling Services (MARS) in Gibson, La. It will take the same path the three previous sections have taken to MARS.
“Once it passes inspection, it will ship out, pending a favorable weather window,” Himes said.