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The VB 10,000 will handle cutting up the Golden Ray into pieces so that it can be removed from St. Simons Sound.

Three long and sturdy pilings will replace a troublesome 15-ton anchor that has held up progress in removing the shipwrecked Golden Ray from its conspicuous lair in the St. Simons Sound.

Work will begin Sunday on driving the first of the three piles, which will be jackhammered deep into the sound’s sandy bed, with only a few feet of piling protruding above it, according to Unified Command. This trifecta of strength will join a strategically placed support system that will steady the massive VB 10,000 crane vessel when it straddles the shipwreck and begins cutting it up for removal, said Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, a spokesman for Unified Command.

Soon after the first pile is in place, the VB 10,000 will begin making its journey from the Port of Fernandina to the St. Simons Sound in preparation of the mighty and unprecedented task awaiting it, Himes said.

The installation of the first pile should take no more than a day, Himes said.

“We will announce when the VB 10,000 will arrive after the first piling is installed,” Himes said.

The 656-foot-long Golden Ray has sat half submerged between St. Simons and Jekyll islands for more than a year, having capsized on Sept. 8, 2019, while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.

The steel piles, 78 feet long and 48 inches in diameter, will be driven about 75 feet into the sound bed. The piles and the four functioning anchors placed around the shipwreck will be tethered to the VB 10,000 by anchor chain.

The three piles are part of a specially designed support system for the VB 10,000, which consists of arching steel girders forming a 255-foot-high crane system atop twin hulls. Based in Sabine Pass, Texas, the crane vessel was built in 2010 for the purpose of dismantling offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

The shallower waters, swift tidal currents and tight confines of the sound present unique stabilization issues for the VB 10,000. In response, engineers developed a support system of five strategically placed anchors around the shipwreck, Himes said. Workers dropped the anchors at specific locations to best steady the VB 10,000 during the cutting process.

This included the one troublesome 15-ton anchor, which was dropped near the shipping channel that leads to the Port of Brunswick. The four other anchors weigh between 6 and 7 tons.

After a two-month setback in late July, the demolition work was set to begin in early October. However, the heaviest anchor repeatedly came up short in strength checks, which were actually “pull tests” conducted by the tugboat Kurt Crosby, Himes said.

Unified Command announced Oct. 7 that the start of the salvage operation would be delayed for several weeks because of the anchor’s shortcomings in testing. The huge anchor needed to withstand a pull strength of more than 200 tons, Himes said.

Even as workers continued to make adjustments to the anchor, engineers had started working on a contingency plan involving piles for support, Himes said Monday. The grouping of pilings planted deep in the sea bed “is a tried and true mooring method,” Himes said. Project engineers are confident the trio of piles will withstand well above the pull strength of 200 tons.

“These piles can hold far in excess of that,” Himes said.

The VB 10,000 has been docked in the Port of Fernandina since early July, when it first arrived from the Gulf of Mexico for the task at hand. Once it straddles the shipwrecked Golden Ray and preparations are complete, the VB 10,000’s powerful system of cranes and winches will churn 400-foot-long anchor chains in back-and-fourth sawing motions, up through the steel hull.

Each cut will take about 24 hours; work cannot cease until completion once it commences. The VB 10,000 crane will hoist each separated piece onto an awaiting barge for hauling away.

Unified Command officials have said it could take a week to 10 days between each cut.

A 1-mile perimeter environmental protection barrier was built around the shipwreck earlier this year. It was designed to catch heavy debris such as loose vehicles with its sturdy mesh netting and to stop leaking oil with its surface floating booms.

Texas-based T&T Salvage is handling the salvage operation. Unified Command consists of the Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems and is responsible for ensuring the contractor follows environmental protection guidelines established by the federal Oil Pollution Action of 1980.

The ship’s owner and insurer are responsible for all costs incurred by the salvage operation, which has been described by Coast Guard officials as the most costly of its kind in U.S. history.

Also this week, Unified Command announced that the 50-yard protection barrier around the shipwreck has been expanded to 150 yards in anticipation of the upcoming salvage work. Boaters are reminded to observe the new boundary.

Additionally, Unified Command issued a reminder that it is illegal to send drones over the wreck site.

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