Report: Officer's error likely caused shipwreck off Georgia

A towering crane straddles remains of the shipwrecked cargo vessel Golden Ray in the waters off St. Simons Island, Ga., on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021. The South Korean freighter overturned on Sept. 8, 2019, shortly after leaving the Port of Brunswick. Work to remove most of the wreckage in giant chunks is nearing an end, though debris cleanup and other efforts are expected to take months more. (Terry Dickson/The Brunswick News via AP)

A top officer's errors in calculating the stability of a cargo ship loaded with nearly 4,200 automobiles likely caused the giant vessel to overturn along the Georgia coast, U.S. investigators said in a report Tuesday.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board issued a 57-page report on the capsizing of the South Korean freighter Golden Ray, which is still being removed in pieces from the water off St. Simons Island two years later.

The ship's crew was rescued safely following the wreck on Sept. 8, 2019. But the ship, measuring 656 feet (199 meters), was deemed a total loss as was its cargo of new automobiles. The NTSB reported the combined losses totaled more than $204 million.

The NTSB reiterated a Coast Guard expert's findings from a public hearing last year that the Golden Ray didn’t have enough water in its ballast tanks, used to add weight at the bottom of a vessel, to offset that of the vehicles in its cargo decks above. That left the ship’s center of gravity too high.

The Golden Ray’s instability caused it to lean sharply during a starboard turn soon after the ship left the Port of Brunswick, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of Savannah. A pilot's door that had been left open on a lower deck allowed seawater to flood the ship, the NTSB report said, cutting off the escape route for some crew members who later had to be rescued from the engine room.

Investigators concluded the unstable loading likely resulted from errors by the ship's chief officer, who reported directly to the captain. The report said the chief officer wasn't properly trained to use the ship's computer that uses loading data to calculate its stability.

“The chief officer made errors with the ballast tank level data entry into the shipboard stability calculation computer," the NTSB report said, “which led to his incorrect determination of the vessel’s stability.”

As a result, the Golden Ray left the Port of Brunswick lacking 1,492 metric tons of ballast that it would have needed to meet international safety standards for stability, the report said.

The NTSB said G-Marine Service Co., the ship's operator and a subsidiary of South Korea-based shipping company Hyundai Glovis, has increased training for its officers on calculating ship stability since the Golden Ray capsized.

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