Julie B

With the help of tugs, the barge Julie B makes the turn in the channel toward Jekyll Island and the Sidney Lanier Bridge.

Suspended from the VB 10,000 crane vessel’s towering yellow arch, a partially submerged 3,800-metric-ton section of ship wreckage rose Tuesday in the St. Simons Sound.

Then it dropped back down some, its motions powered by the winches, rigging and pulleys of the mighty 255-foot-tall VB 10,000 crane vessel. Then it rose again, then dropped again.

Salvors performed this ultra-slow motion impression of the world’s largest yo-yo to allow the crew of the Fuchs crane better access to vehicles within the cargo hold of what is known as Section 5 of the shipwrecked Golden Ray, said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes.

Two days after completion of the final cut into what remains of the Golden Ray, salvors continued to work on removing the last two sections of the shipwreck. That meant lightening the load by removing vehicles from inside the cargo hold of Section 5 in advance of lifting the section entirely out of the water, Himes said.

Because of suspected damage to the port side hull, salvors want to remove as much weight as possible before the lift.

Once lifted, a dry dock barge will slide between the VB 10,000’s twin hulls, after which the 74-foot-long section of shipwreck will be lowered onto a specially built cradle on its deck.

That stage could come as early as Wednesday, exactly two years after the 656-foot-long Golden Ray overturned on Sept. 8, 2019, while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.

Such operations are conducted at slack high tide. High tide on the St. Simons Sound occurs at 9:39 a.m. Wednesday and again at 9:57 p.m. Half-submerged on its port side, the Golden Ray’s presence in the St. Simons Sound had steadily decreased since cutting and removal operations commenced in November.

While others may have been pondering the two-year anniversary of the maritime disaster, it was all business Tuesday for the salvage crews on the water.

“Weight shedding will continue throughout today,” Himes said. “They will raise and lower the section to assist the weight shedding team in grabbing vehicles. This is the main cargo section, so this is where the bulk of the cars were.”

With the main cargo section being in the middle of the ship, it is also where the Golden Ray suffered the most damage when its port side capsized into the sandbar on the Jekyll Island side of the sound. That is why the crew of T&T Salvage is taking its time to lessen the weight of the lift.

While many of the vehicles above the water line already have been plucked out by the Fuchs crane, many remain. The VB 10,000 is lifting and lowering Section 5 so that the crane can also remove vehicles that have been below water, Himes said.

Salvors expect to find damage on the outer hull of Section 5 once it is lifted fully out of the water. Section 6 and Section 3, which also comprised the Golden Ray’s midship, had damage to the outer port hull due to contact with the sandbar, Himes said.

“They saw crumpling on Section 3 and they saw the same kind of (damage) happening on Section 6,” Himes said. “At some point we will lift this section out of the water so engineers can survey the (damage) and make any necessary adjustments to the cradle.”

Once Section 5 is lowered onto the deck of a dry dock barge, welders will move in to secure the section to the cradle for transport to inland waters. The barge and its cargo will be moored temporarily on the Turtle River to await dismantling at a site along the East River off of Bay Street in Brunswick.

Section 3 and Section 6 are already docked aboard dry docks at the East River site, where preparations are under way to begin dismantling each section, from several thousand metric tons each to pieces of several hundred metric tons. The dismantled pieces will be transported via barge to Modern American Recycling Services (MARS) in Louisiana.

The four out sections of the shipwreck already have been towed whole to MARS’s Gibson, La., facility.

Because of wreck damage, engineers are weary of transporting the four middle sections whole.

When Section 5 is dispatched, the VB 10,000 will focus on removing the last chunk of shipwreck from the St. Simons Sound. Section 4 is 80 feet long and weighs an estimated 4,909 metric tons.

The timeline for that final step will be dictated by safety rather than speed, Himes stressed.

“We respect that people might be getting excited about this coming to an end, but we are all about slow, smooth and safe,” Himes said.

Meanwhile, pollution cleanup crews on the water are seeing significant amounts of shipwreck debris in the aftermath of the last completed cut late Saturday night, Himes said.

What they are not seeing is significant oil discharges, such as those that followed the July 30 cut and fouled shorelines on St. Simons Island’s south end. Only light fuel sheens have been detected in and around the 1-mile-perimeter environmental protection barrier that surrounds the salvage site, Himes said.

The car debris is mostly plastic car parts, he said. Some debris has washed up on local shorelines, where it is being addressed by cleanup workers on foot patrol.

“Our teams have been recovering thousands of pieces of floating plastic debris, ranging in size to as big as a hand to as large as a front bumper,” Himes said. “But they’re picking up much less on the shoreline compared to what they’re recovering on the water, which is how this system is supposed to work.”

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