While the hulking VB 10,000 crane vessel continued to slug it out with the staunch engine section of the shipwrecked Golden Ray, crane operators at the other end of the vessel engaged this week in a fishing expedition of sorts.
It was a good couple of days on the St. Simons Sound for these junk anglers.
Between Wednesday and Thursday, the crews fished 26 vehicles from the waters inside the 1-mile perimeter environmental protection barrier (EPB) that surrounds the shipwreck. The crane pulled a removable interior deck section from the waters as well.
The vehicles and the deck section were loaded onto an awaiting barge and taken to the Mayor’s Point terminal on the East River in Brunswick.
“Crews started picking debris out of the EPB where Section 1 and Section 2 used to be,” said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command.
The 656-foot-long Golden Ray carried a cargo of 4,200 vehicles when it overturned while heading out to sea from the Port of Brunswick on Sept. 8, 2019. As salvors expected, dozens and dozens of vehicles have fallen out of the Golden Ray during the three successful operations to cut away and remove sections of the shipwreck.
Sonar devices informed the crane crew precisely where to fish for loose vehicles, Himes said. Ongoing hydrographic surveys of the waters around the shipwreck also benefited the effort. The crane was equipped with a multi-tine grapple to snag the vehicles.
It marked the first application of the plan salvors have had all along for safely removing the vehicles from the sound. The initial outing proved informative, effective and productive, Himes said.
“The way they went about this is very similar to the procedures that will take place after the Golden Ray is removed from the sound,” Himes said. “Moments like this always give us the opportunity to work on and improve the process.”
T&T Salvage spent the first five months of 2020 constructing the environmental protection barrier around the shipwreck. It consists of sturdy mesh netting in 3-foot squares — strong enough to catch loose Kias, Hyundais and American SUVs, but large enough to allow free passage for sea turtles and other marine life.
The net is braced by 80 steel piles placed in pairs, each pile 140 feet long and driven roughly halfway into the sound’s sandy bed. Floating oil retention boom lines the EPB’s surface.
SUV’s and numerous other vehicles could be seen plunging into the water when the bow section, known to salvors as Section 1, was cut free and hoisted from the water by the VB 10,000 in late November. Still more vehicles tumbled out when the stern section (Section 8) was removed in early January. Ditto for the operation that removed Section 2 at the fore of the shipwreck in mid March.
About 366 feet of the half-submerged shipwreck remains in the sound.
Unified Command does not have a count on the number of vehicles that have fallen into the water from the shipwreck. It is confident the EPB will hold everything until it can be addressed.
T&T Salvage and Unified Command are focusing for now on safely and successfully completing each cut and loading each several-thousand-metric-ton chunks of steel onto an awaiting barge.
The plan calls for removing the Golden Ray in eight sections.
Salvors saw an opportunity to safely fish loose vehicles from the EPB’s east end while the VB 10,000 worked to saw a mighty anchor chain up through the engine section (Section 7) at the west end. As in many cases, this was just one of a myriad of ongoing operations that often unfolds in concert when officials determine it is safe to do so.
“When we’re lifting, we’re making sure the lift is safe,” Himes said. “Anything that falls inside the EPB structure, that’s what it was designed to do. It was designed to hold anything we might encounter.”
Boats crewed by debris cleanup teams stood ready in the waters outside the EPB if needed as the crane lifted vehicles from the water.
The barge that held the vehicles was modified with walls skirting its deck, Himes said.
“They just saw an opportunity to get some of these vehicles out of the EPB,” Himes said Thursday. “So we commenced those operations yesterday. As of (Thursday), they pulled out one movable deck and 26 vehicles.”
Salvors suffered a minor setback Thursday on cutting operations at the other end of the half-submerged shipwreck. A joining shackle on the cutting chain broke Thursday morning, causing a pause in operations to repair the broken link, Himes said.
Baldt shackles join the several 90-foot-long chain sections that comprise the overall cutting chain. The shackle that broke had a tensile strength rating of 400 tons. Salvors retrieved the chain and rejoined it with a new baldt shackle made of greater strength, Himes said.
Cutting operations resumed at 4 p.m. Thursday, he said.
While salvors repaired the chain, the operation’s rappelling crews descended onto the shipwreck with welding torches to make deeper cuts into the interior along the cutting path, Himes said. These RATs (Rope Access Technicians) are trained in multiple tasks. Their specialty resides in performing such tasks while dangling at the end of a rope, he said.
“They’re kind of a multipurpose tool inside of a human,” he said. “They do cutting, welding and array of other things. But they’re trained to be able do all those jobs while simultaneously being harnessed.”
Salvors temporarily suspended cutting operations on Section 7 after a chain break on Feb. 26, the fifth unexpected work stoppage in 30 days of cutting. After severing Section 2 in eight days last month, the VB 10,000 returned to Section 7 and resumed cutting last weekend.