Bill Dawson could well imagine shipping more than 1 million vehicles out of the Port of Brunswick by this time next year, overtaking Baltimore, Md., as the leading Ro/Ro port in America.
And he can easily see expanding operations at the port’s Colonel’s Island, already the largest land-based vehicle shipping facility in the nation. But a 656-foot-long ship overturned and grounded in the St. Simons Sound, just sitting there half submerged with a destroyed cargo of 4,200 vehicles on board?
Yes, the General Manager at the Port of Brunswick confessed Tuesday that he is still trying to wrap his head around that one. Folks at the port barely had time catch their collective breath from the intense preparations for the slow-moving Hurricane Dorian, which threatened Glynn County for days late this summer before charting a harmless course far offshore.
Then came that phone call early in the dark morning hours of Sept. 8.
“Before the Golden Ray came, we had been through almost two weeks of preparation for Dorian,” Dawson said, addressing the Rotary Club of St. Simons at Sea Palms on the island. “Once that passed, we sat down for a rest. And then the Golden Ray happened. That just changed my whole life. Who would have thought a ship could turn over like that? When I got the call at 2:15 in the morning, I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘That can’t happen here.’”
Yet, we all know now it did happen here. As the Unified Command trudges through plans to dismantle and remove the Golden Ray from the sound, Dawson and other port officials are moving forward with the business of shipping. However, he noted that the gargantuan ship cannot be ignored.
For now, all shipping in and out of the Port of Brunswick takes place at night, leaving the valuable daylight hours to the crews and barges and cranes that are working constantly on the shipwrecked Golden Ray. The 118-foot-wide ship sits in about 40 feet of water on the south side of the shipping channel, directly between Jekyll and St. Simons islands. It is about 500 feet away from the shipping channel, Dawson said.
It is too early to tell whether a temporary closure of the channel — and business at the port — might be needed as work begins in earnest on dismantling the Golden Ray, he said.
“That’s always a possibility,” he said. “I hope it won’t occur because that’s commerce.”
That commerce is back up and running at the Port of Brunswick is due in large part to the actions that fateful night of harbor pilot Jonathan “J.T.” Tennant, Dawson said. Dawson was reiterating the praise heaped upon the local mariner with the Brunswick Bar Harbor Pilots Association last month by Griff Lynch, Executive Director of the Georgia Ports Authority. Both agree Tennant’s decision to intentionally ground the foundering vessel out of the shipping channel was an extraordinary act of seamanship.
“Of course, T.J. Tennant is the true hero of this whole incident,” Dawson said. “He did everything he could to make the best out of a bad situation.”
While the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board investigation remains ongoing, this former Eagle Scout has passed scrutiny without reproach, Dawson said. With extensive maritime training and detailed knowledge of local waters, harbor pilots such as Tennant are charged with guiding all ships in and out of the port.
“He was a real pro,” Dawson said. “He came out smelling like a rose.”
Meanwhile, the Golden Ray’s battered cargo of vehicles is strewn throughout the 13 decks of the shipwrecked Ro/Ro, so nicknamed because vehicles roll on at one port and roll off at another. The port’s longshoremen strap all vehicles down, Dawson said. But that provided little protection once the ship capsized, he said.
“The cars are all lashed to the decks,” Dawson said. “But once they turned sideways, the lateral strength wasn’t there, and they all fell down.”
As the salvagers pursue a plan to get the Golden Ray out of here, port authorities are moving ahead with plans for future growth, Dawson said. The port will incur none of the sure-to-be-massive cost cleanup and salvaging, he said. That financial obligation rests with the ship and its insurer, he said.
Colonel’s Island presently has four car carrier companies operating there: International Autos, BMW of North America, Mercedes Benz USA and Vehicle Processors of America. There are anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 vehicles there at any give time, he said. On average, 40 Ro/Ro ships arrive at the port monthly, some with a cargo capacity of 8,000 vehicles, he said. Some 630,000 vehicles were shipped out of the port last year, he said. An additional 400 acres of undeveloped land on Colonel’s Island leaves room for the port’s expansion plans, he said.
The Port of Brunswick believes it can increase shipping to 1.2 million vehicles in 2020, he said.
“Our goal is to stay 25 percent ahead of market,” he said. “We’re the largest land-based facility in the U.S., with room to grow. Baltimore is No. 1 right now (in Ro/Ro shipping in America), and we’re not really that far apart.”
Still, much of the port’s future plans hinge on the fate of a certain shipwrecked Ro/Ro stuck in the St. Simons Sound.
“The biggest problem we have is the Golden Ray,” Dawson conceded. “We’re moving vessels at night now so that the Golden Ray crew can do its job in the daytime.”