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 lead stevedore 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.

During the afternoon session, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ chief of navigation testified that the shipping channel was unobstructed before and after the wreck of the Golden Ray. “We found no anomalies,” said Jason O’Kane, the corps’ chief of navigation for the Savannah District, which includes the Port of Brunswick.

A contractor with SSA Atlantic, Farley has worked as a stevedore foreman in the Port of Brunswick for eight years. He has been in the business 14 years, starting as a stevedore and working his way up.

After the Golden Ray docked 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 compact cars shipped from Mexico. The ship’s previous ports-of-call included two stops in Mexico in August 2019.

The stevedore crew then loaded the ship with 360 vehicles, Farley said. All were Kia Telluride SUVs, he said. The vehicles from Mexico were offloaded from decks 11 and 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 offloaded. An overflow of about 65 vehicles was loaded into the central fifth deck, he said. The fifth deck is typically used for any “overflow” of vehicles being loaded onto a car carrier, 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.

Crews of stevedores under Farley’s supervision removed the lashes on outgoing vehicles, which were then unloaded by stevedore drivers on the team, he said. The drivers then drove the Tellurides onto the ship, at which time their stevedore coworkers lashed the vehicles in securely, he said.

The job took no more than a few hours and was completed at 10:42 p.m., Farley said. Ships typically depart within an hour of being loaded, he said.

“I usually don’t have a problem in Brunswick,” Farley said. “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 on the ship. In particular, a top-heavy load of vehicles in the cargo hold 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’s questioning clearly indicated they were interested in the innerworkings of the ship’s cargo load.

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 to be offloaded and which vehicles will be onloaded. The South Korean company Glovis Hyundai owns the Golden Ray.

“I can’t take a car off or load a car on if it’s not on the manifest,” he said. “I get my manifest from Glovis. Actually, the Glovis ships are the best working ships out there, to be honest.”

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 of the vehicular cargo.

The vehicles have no more than a couple of gallons of fuel in their tanks during transport, he said.

On the morning of the incident, the Golden Ray listed heavily to starboard while making a starboard turn in the sound — the final turn in the shipping channel before heading out to sea. The ship then listed to port and rolled over between St. Simons and Jekyll islands some time after 1:30 a.m.

It has since been revealed that Brunswick harbor pilot J.T. Tennant intentionally ran the ship aground on the south side of the channel to avoid blocking shipping commerce.

Testifying Tuesday afternoon, O’Kane said the corps used sonar and underwater imaging technology to inspect the entire channel just days before the shipwreck. It was necessary after Hurricane Dorian passed offshore Sept. 4, bringing high winds and heavy surf to the area, he said.

The survey, conducted jointly with the region’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office, was completed on the afternoon of Sept. 6, he said.

Inspectors found no large underwater objects within the channel and no scouring of its sand bottom, he said.

Likewise, additional surveys were conducted immediately after the Golden Ray capsized – one on Sept. 9 and another on Sept. 11, he said. These surveys focused on the ship’s trek, from the port to its resting place.

A large map charting the results of the inspections was displayed at the hearing showing a blue to dark blue line throughout the shipping channel. O’Kane said the blue indicated where the channel is within the 36-feet depth necessary for navigation; the dark blue indicated depths of 40 or more feet, he said.

O’Kane was asked if there was any “indication” the Golden Ray may have run aground before capsizing.

“No sir,” O’Kane replied.

The blue line running the length of the map indicated no barriers to navigation in the channel before or after the shipwreck, he said.

“If there’s an anomaly, it will show up as a definitively dark area,” he said. “Since you don’t see any definitively black marks here, I can tell you that channel is clear.”

The hearing resumes at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. Giving testimony will be Mike Mavrinac, Hyundai Glovis’ manager of ocean carrier services; Sammy Maataki, a space planner of Norton Lilly; Hyun Jip Choi, senior manager of the Glovis Hyundai’s safety management team; and superintendent Gi Woo Kim.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic precautions, only participants are allowed inside the meeting. The public can follow the proceedings at: https://livestream.com/USCGinvestigations. The public can submit questions and comments via email at: USCGGoldenRay@gmail.com.

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