The VB 10,000 will arrive in the Golden Isles to cut up and haul off the shipwrecked Golden Ray as early as the middle of next week.
But if you are in earshot of U.S. Coast Guard Commander D.J. Donovan, you will know for sure when it is here. No one is more anxious for the mega crane-barge to get here and get to work than Donovan and the rest of he Unified Command, he assured members of the Rotary Club of St. Simons Island on Tuesday.
“You’re probably going to hear me screaming and whooping when I hear it’s in town,” Donovan said. “We’ve been waiting for a long time on this.”
During an online video meeting in keeping with the COVID-19 pandemic precautions, Donovan gave the Rotarians the latest update on the epic mission to once and for all remove the 656-foot shipwreck from the St. Simons Sound. More than 10 months after the 25,000-ton car carrier capsized in the sound while heading out to sea with a cargo of more than 4,200 vehicles, the final phase of the plan to remove it will begin soon.
The complex, 5,000-foot perimeter environmental protection barrier enclosing the ship is complete. The anchor chains that will do the cutting – tearing, actually – are laid across the hull and ready. And like a prizefighter ready for a much-anticipated heavyweight bout, the 255-foot tall dual-hulled VB 10,000 will soon enter the ring for a clash of titans like nothing anyone has ever seen. Make no mistake about it, Donovan said.
“I don’t know how you can put a benchmark on it because this has never been done before,” Donovan said. “This is truly a historical moment.”
Leaving nothing to chance in preparation, the first of seven cuts into the overturned ship’s hull could begin as early as July 17, he said. The VB 10,000 departed its home port in Sabine Pass, Texas, on June 15, hauled by two powerful towboats. As of Tuesday, it was offshore in the Atlantic Ocean near Daytona Beach. It should arrive in Fernandina Beach by Friday. After some refitting and modifications, it should take another day to make it here, he said.
“We’re looking at the Versabar getting to Fernandina probably around July 3,” he said. “Whatever it takes to prep it there, it will then be moving on to St. Simons.”
The ship’s removal is being conducted by Texas-based T&T Salvage. In answer to questions concerning the use of regular old anchor chains to cut through the ship’s hull, Donovan said that was a deliberate decision. He noted a similar process in 2003 to remove the shipwrecked car carrier Tricolor from the English Channel, a project that employed a carbide-toothed steel cable to cut straight through – contents and all.
With the Golden Ray entrenched in a channel between two resort islands, within a vital marine ecosystem, planners want to avoid cutting into the vehicles inside the ship’s cargo hold or releasing shards of steel into the water, he said.
Each of the 400-foot anchor chains were strategically placed at precise locations on the hull to further avoid excess fragmentation, he said. The VB 10,000 will straddle the shipwreck, employing mighty winches to power the chains.
“The idea is the chain is going to go about seven feet per minute,” he said. “It’s a slow rip, not really a cut. They don’t want to cut through vehicles and released contaminants into the environment. The idea is, they want to knock the vehicles out of the way as the chain makes its way up through the hull. And filings from a cable cut could get into the environment.”
The mesh net that spans from the sound’s sandy bottom to above the water’s surface is intended to catch any vehicles or large chunks of debris that shake loose during the cutting process, he said. The netting’s gaps are 5-foot-by-5-foot – small enough to catch any vehicles or large debris, but large enough to allow marine life to pass, he said.
Each cut will take 24 continuous hours, during which the noise from the tearing of still should be jarringly loud. Planners are not exactly sure how loud.
“Loud? You’re probably going to want to put some headphones on,” he said. “I don’t know how loud – it’s never been done before.”
Underwater monitors will measure the volume to determine what impact it might have on marine life, he said.
Once a section is separated, the VB 10,000 will hoist it onto an awaiting barge. Each section is expected to weigh between 2,700 and 4.100 tons, he said. Once secured on the barge, the four exterior sections of the hull will be transported directly to a recycling facility in Gibson, La. The four interior sections will be taken to a location at the Port of Brunswick, where the vehicles in the cargo hull will be removed and crushed for recycling, he said. The hull section will then be hauled via barge to Gibson, La.
After each cut, the remainder of the shipwreck will be checked for structural integrity to be sure it is stable in the sound’s swift tidal currents. Trawlers designed for collecting debris from dismantled offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico will patrol the sound to pick up any large chunks of vehicles that might escape the barrier, he said.
As luck would have it, the Golden Ray’s sister ship, the Silver Ray, made a stop in the Port of Brunswick last month. Engineers with the demolition project took the opportunity to inspect its construction.
“The idea with the placement of the chains is to cut where there’s bulkheads or walls inside so they can contain the debris,” Donovan said. “(When) the Silver Ray came through here about a month ago, some of our engineers were able to get on board and make sure everything is where they think it is because it’s a little different looking at a ship when it’s on its side.”